May 11, 2004
I've just finished Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It's a captivating novel, with beautifully poetic language and poignant themes. I read the book fast, which I hardly ever do. Since I am a relatively slow reader, reading a book quickly means reading without stopping. Backstage, preparing for the show, I held the book in one hand and stretched with the other. While the others went out for karaoke during our three day visit to Longview, I snuggled in front of the heater in our motel, turning page after page.
Life of Pi is about belief. The story details the fantastical tale of Pi, a boy from India who is immigrating to Canada, along with his family and many of the animals from his father's zoo. The ship sinks. Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra, and orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. What follows is Pi's narration of his ordeal at sea, as well as his reflections on faith, survival, love, and living.
A primary theme of the book is "believing the better story." Pi says that since we cannot know what will happen when we breathe our last breath, why not live with a faith that the divine is in everything, that there is a higher power, that there is a reason for wonder and awe, that the great myths are alive and true? He writes:
I can well imagine an atheist's last words: "White, white! L-L-Love! My God!"—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, "Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brrain," and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.
After reading this, I let the book relax in my hands so I could think for a moment. Believe the better story? I liked this idea. Why think that a white light after death is only our last hallucination? Why dismiss moments of holiness with scientific hypothesis? What is the purpose? What is the point? How does this enrich our lives?
I took out my notebook and was about to scribble the words "believe the better story," but I couldn't bring myself to do it. By believing one thing over another, aren't we closing our minds to possibility? Are we seeking ignorance? Through faith, are we deceiving ourselves? I compromised and wrote, "follow the better story." This seemed better, somehow. While I can believe many things to be true, I can chose to follow one belief over the other.
In the end, the themes that Pi discusses over the course of the book become extremely relevant to the book itself. For, after many pages telling of his 227 days at sea with his floating menagerie, Pi poses an alternate story in only eight pages. In this story he is not on the rescue boat with animals, but with people who are forced to kill and cannibalize one another. When questioned by officials about the believability of the later story over the former, the following dialogue ensues:
"You can't prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it."
"I guess so."
"In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer."
"Yes, that's true."
"So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?"
Well, clearly the story with animals is the better story. And this is not merely because it is easier to stomach. No, it is instead because the animals reduce emotion to the pure and unbridled and uncomplicated. Though the tiger is ferocious, he is beautifully instinctive. Though the orangutan is comical, the passages reflecting upon her grief are incredibly visceral. Though Pi is a human, he is forced to see himself as the animal he is, one who has basic needs to survive.
I thought, okay, that's the better story. But the latter story, the one in which Pi survives along with several other people, the one with violence and cannibalism, and viciousness, that's probably the true story. That's much more likely. How terrible that the first story wasn't true. How awful.
I felt sickened and saddened. I wanted to just know what happened.
The book is written as a true account. There are footnotes by the author detailing how he stumbled upon Pi Patel and his incredible story. There are quotes from the recorded conversation between Pi and government officials. I never once doubted the author, or the factuality of his own story in attaining the one for his book.
But then I put my hand to my forehead and said out loud, "Kerry, this is fiction! Of course it's all made up!" To assure myself, I got onto the internet and, sure enough, there was no Tsimsum that sank on July 2, 1977. There were no survivors because it didn't exist.
I felt cheated and deceived. I wanted to know that what happened happened.
And it was only then that the entire meaning of the book swept over me and I was left breathless. Believe the better story. Of course. I could either dismiss the book and feel lost and unsatisfied and confused and oddly rational. Or, I could not only accept the book, but also decide to believe the better story within it.
It took me fiction to allow myself belief. The trick now, of course, is to find faith in the events off of the page. To believe the better story.
I took out my journal, crossed out the word "follow" and scribbled in "believe." I still don't know what I think about it. I want to believe, but not blindly. It is something I cannot stop thinking about. It is an idea that gives me peace and a headache all at once. And for this I am grateful.