Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Double Life of Pi

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The wonderful novel, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel is once again in the spotlight.  The novel won the 2001 Mann Booker Prize for best fiction written in English by a citizen of  the Commonwealth of Nations.  Now it is a fabulous movie by Ang Lee.  As you might surmise from the above comments, I am a big fan of Life of Pi.  I led my book club discussion on the book and have defended it against many of its detractors.  It seems you either really love this book or really hate it.  I asked the usher at the theater how people were reacting to the movie and he said about 50/50.  So, I guess if you didn't like the book, you're not going to like the movie.  I went with someone who didn't have a clue about the plot and she loved the movie.  Even if you don't like or "get" the movie, it is visually stunning.  I saw it in 3D and it was spectacular.  So, after 12 years I'm once again thinking about the double Life of Pi.  I think that what confuses people the most is:  WHAT IS THE TRUTH?! Which story told by Pi is the real story? In the movie the stories are being told by Pi to a writer  many years after the shipwreck.  Which to believe...  Read more...

Let's start with the two stories.  Story one:  Pi and his family are moving from India to Canada and selling their zoo animals to zoos mostly in the United States.  They board a freighter with the animals.  Somewhere outside of Manila, the boat hits a storm and the boat sinks (mysteriously).  Pi survives in a life boat but so does a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a 450 pound Bengal tiger named by the family, Richard Parker.  A reason is given for the tiger's name but I'll discuss later where the name Richard Parker really comes from.  Of course, things get out of hand.  Before you know it, the chain of Darwinism kicks in and the only living creatures on the boat are Pi and Richard Parker.  It's a story of survival and a story of in life, faith in humanity and faith in "A" God.  I say "A" God because Pi believes that no matter what path you take to believe in God, it is your path and no one else's.  Pi invokes his God many times during the journey and seeks his survival by God's grace. He even tells of a mysterious island floating in the Pacific ocean that helps save he and Richard Parker's lives.  After 227 days, Pi reaches Mexico and he and Richard Parker survive.  But as soon as they reach land, Richard Parker never looks back at Pi.  Never turns his head. After all they've been through... Pi believes that he's alive because of his taking on the challenge of their survival. And all Richard Parker does is simply walk into the jungle never to be seen again.

Story two:  Pi is in the hospital being interviewed by the freight company's investigators.  He has told them story one.  They are very dubious and say they can't go back and tell their superiors what he has just told them.  So Pi then tells this story...he survives the sinking of the ship in a life boat but this time with a sailor who has an injured leg, his mother, and a mean cook (played in the movie by a very heavy Gerard Depardieu).  The wounded sailor is very ill and most likely will die.  In the night, the cook kills the sailor and tells Pi and his mother that he will use the flesh as bait.  But he doesn't.  He resorts to cannibalism which causes Pi's mother to fight with the cook.  She implores Pi to get in the small raft they have been pulling.  The cook kills his mother and in retaliation, Pi kills the cook. (I've sort of paraphrased all of this.)

In the movie, the writer to whom Pi is telling his story then looks at Pi and says, so, metaphorically,  in the second story the wounded sailor is the zebra, your mother is the orangutan, the cook is the hyena and that you, Pi, is Richard Parker.  I wrote earlier that I would tell you more about Richard Parker.  According to Wikipedia there are several Richard Parker's in seafaring history. In an Edgar Allen Poe story, a Richard Parker gets eaten by survivors from a ship wreck.  Another real Richard Parker, in 1846, was a drowning victim of a ship wreck, and yet another Richard Parker, in 1884, was killed by the survivors and cannibalized. So Martel thought that would be a great name for his tiger.  Now is when we get all philosophical.  At the beginning of the novel/movie, Pi's father is getting fed up with Pi's dabbling in religions.  He tells him the only way to the truth is to use reasoning and logic.  That is the only way to the truth.  The tag line for the movie is  "Believe in the unbelievable."  That is the exact opposite of what Pi's father has told him.  If I go by reason and logic, Pi's second story is the real one.  I believe just as the writer did that Pi merged the two stories together.  That   when he "became" Richard Parker, the killer, is was like a second psyche.  And when he survives on the beach and he "sees" Richard Parker walking away and never looking back, well, that is what Pi does.  He lets that part of himself go and begins to "believe in the unbelievable". When he asks the writer which story he believes, the writer says the one with the tiger.  And Pi says, "thank you.  And so it goes with God."  You must suspend reason and logic and believe in the unbelievable...There is much debate on the internet about the book jacket's claim, as well as Pi's statement within the novel, that the story will make you believe in God.  I'm not going to debate that point.  For me, like the writer and the Japanese investigators, I prefer the Richard Parker and Pi story.  It is one of survival and heroics not one of the reality of murder and cannibalism.

The movie sticks fairly closely to the narrative in the novel.  They take license by taking some characters' dialog and for narrative reasons, give that dialog to someone else.  Life of Pi is one of the top 5 favorite books that I've  ever read.  Let me know if you have any ideas on what Martel was trying to say in the novel or what Ang Lee was trying to relay in the the movie.  I'd love to hear from you...But then again I may be the only one pondering this..

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