Monday, July 02, 2007
The Life of Pi
The title sounds like an installment of a Food Network program called, "The Secret Life of ... Gummy Bears" only you'd substitiute "Pie" for "Gummy Bears." But this Pi is more like 3.14 and is derivative of the French word "Piscine," which means "swimming pool."
Off the beaten path enough for you yet?
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is part fable, part allegory, part adventure, part philosophy/theology. It is the first book in a long time that has inspired me to highlight passages for their poetic beauty, imagery, clever turn of phrase or irony. It's not a trite novel whose ending is a neatly wrapped package. In fact, you receive not one package but two at its conclusion.
LOP is long (over 300 pages), complex and intense. It is roughly divided into three sections. The first section serves to elicit the reader's emotional connection to Pi, portraying him as a beloved, happy, secure Indian boy whose father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India, in the late 1960s or early 70s.
Much attention is given to Pi's affinity for religion, or as he would probably express it, his love for God. In fact, Pi loves all-things-God or religion so much that he is torn between the Hindu faith he was born into (although his parents do not practice and lead secular lives), Islam and Christianity. He describes why he desires to be devoted to each religion, much to the confusion of his parents and chagrin of his Catholic priest, imam and Hindu pandit.
Being a follower of Christ, I was completely engrossed as Pi equivocated about Christianity, a religion that worships a human god who allows himself to become soiled here on earth and die for unworthy men. He expresses his indignation and frustration about this illogical god, and the Catholic priest who has been meeting with him regularly responds poignantly to Pi's question of "Why?" with one word: "Love."
At the end of the first section, Pi's homelife, a veritable Utopia, is up-ended when his family decides to leave India because of the political climate and go to Canada. All animals are sold to zoos all over the world, and Pi's family and several large animals take a cargo ship bound for Canada. The ship sinks. Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a 400 lb+ Bengal tiger and several other animals.
The second section of the book describes Pi's harrowing plight at sea. Martel describes Pi's despair and physical breakdown with laser-point detail and graphic imagery. One example shows Pi, a vegan desperate for any sustenance, learning to rip open turtle shells and eat the raw flesh. And that image is not nearly as graphic as others. I've never read any account of survival as graphic as this novel's; thus, it is extremely riveting and even disturbing.
After 227 days adrift, Pi does elude death a final time and is interviewed, in Mexico, by two Japanese company representatives of Pi's family's ship that sunk. They want details from Pi to help them figure out what went wrong. The answers they get are so fantastical that they cannot believe this 16 year-old survived this ordeal. They are relentless in asking him for the truth about the event. The Truth.
And herein lies the ending, which I shall not give away, except I will say that it would not, as the blurb on the jacket says, make me believe in God if I were agnostic, nor would did it strengthen my faith in God.
I had trouble with some of the themes in the novel, although I may have read more into Martel's propositions than necessary; namely, do all roads lead to God? Is there an absolute, de-facto God, or is there simply an abstract "essence" of God, which is just as true and real as an actual Person. Martel seemed to admire the uniqueness of each of "The Big Three" religions, their liturgies and symbols and "rules" (doctrines), such as the Muslim call to prayer three times a day. However, if there's one thing a post-modern belief system can't abide, it's exclusivity, and since each of the three leaders aver that their religion is the only way to God, Martel portrays them as bumbling and narrow-minded. Finally, there is the age-old question, "What is truth?" upon which the novels pivots at its close.
All in all, The Life of Pi was a heart-squeezing, page-turning, eye-opening experience, and I'm glad I read it. It took me further into a culture I know little about, and I'm all for enlightenment. However, I could not help but see a post-modern agenda around each plot device. And if one of the thematic assertions is that all belief systems are equal, I defer to John 14:6 where Jesus plainly says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
As my pastor says frequently, "I'm not angry that every path does not lead to God. I am grateful that He made one way, Jesus Christ, to bring us together."
You can also read Susan's review of LOP at Learning for Lifetime.