Saturday, April 30, 2005

Yann Martel's Life Of Pi.

Well I’ll be danged.
It did work.
I’m sure it will take a while for me to get a hang of how this thing really operates.
As I mentioned in the first bloggage, I pretty much LIVE for literature.... good books in general, fictional and non-fictional, and so, while I will probably talk about all manner of things from time to time [like the Pigeon-family that is living on my balcony etc.] I would like to devote the greater percentage of overall bloggageness to things directly bookish.
Here is an example of what I mean. A wee bit on Yann Martel’s Booker Award winning Life of Pi.

I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed Life of Pi on many levels. The adventure itself, the (in my opinion) wonderful descriptive detail, and the way that it begins with all of that philisophical/religious tossed salad effect… little Pi becoming a follower of three different major religions. Wonderful stuff. And don’t even ask me why, but I LOVE the tiger, Richard Parker… I fell big-time for this beast, who was, through and through… a beast.
And this in itself was something that I thought Martel really carried off well. I was always wondering if this terror-of-the-jungle, this thing that bites hyenas heads clean off at the shoulder blades… if he was going to all of a sudden become Old Yeller, and cuddle up with Pi one evening… purring sweet nothings into his ear.
Never happened…
But for a full 227 days this big cat could have swatted Pi right onto his keester and eaten him and Martel always ratcheted up the possibility that this could be so, at any moment. I once spent about half an hour in the very presence of an untethered Bengal tiger. He could have bit my arm off at any moment. Free-ranging, no cage. Just me (and several other people) and this gi-normous Halloween-coloured breathing mini-van of a BEAST, and there is no other word for it. His paw was the size of my head, it was horrid to imagine the sheer cosmetic damage that such a cat could accomplish if it wanted to.
And so, the whole notion of Pi building the raft and spending so much time tethered to the lifeboat… this was ingenious. It was something that I probably would not have thought of if I was trying to write the book… yet something I probably would have thought of if I was Pi.

I went to a Yann Martel reading and discussion evening shortly after reading the book, and I will report a bit on it here, in reference to the book itself.
First of all, Yann was extremely interesting, very humble, gracious, very patient with everyone’s sometimes silly questions, and he had big hair. Really big hair. Richard Parker would like to have so much hair! Like a tornado had touched down and stopped just short of lifting him skyward. But… it suited him. He looked very suave… he exuded intelligence, physically and verbally.
The patience of an elephant. During the introduction, someone’s cell phone directly behind me went into something not unlike the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in high gear. The host then directed everyone to turn their cell phones off. Not five minutes into Yann’s reading… another cell phone starts blaring! Yann takes it in stride. But then later, in the question period, Yann was explaining a very deep point, and just when there was that holy hush in the place, and my pen was poised to do that “automatic writing” that one does when one is not even looking down at one’s paper (you’ve been there?)… well, this girl literally jumps up and walks out of the room.
Yann COMPLETELY lost his train of thought. I mean utterly had no idea. Could not say even one more word. It was terrible.

A man who introduced himself as “a minister” came up to the microphone and asked… “You said that the three-toed sloth reminded Pi of God. Can you explain this please?”
(Much laughter in room)…. But when it all died down… Yann gave a wonderful explanation… he said that when we look into the eyes of an animal, “we meet mystery.” He said that we get a profound sense that we are like them… but with this, is an equally profound sense that we are NOT like them. He equated this to our “wonderings” about God. He said “A dog does not have our intellect, and yet it gets by. So, what is the purpose of our intellect? Is it not there that we may attempt an understanding of life that is greater than that of a dog’s?”
He said that Richard Parker was originally an elephant. Can you imagine? Then, he was going to be a rhinoceros (because Yann said the rhinoceros has the most wonderful eyes of any beast). Alas though, the rhino only eats grass….. no good.

Yann intended Life of Pi to be a sort of meta-novel. Of his narrative strategy he said that his aim was to tell a story that was progressively (increasingly) unbelievable. But, by dint of increased detail… you are compelled to believe the “animal” story when presented with the alternative..
He purposely put the blind cannibal thing in there to make the reader say… “Oh come on… this is ridiculous.” (Even though the whole scenario is based on a verified historical account of two ships that met in the ocean, literally collided into each other, and each entire crew were blind. One man chronicled the whole thing in a journal, as he locked himself in a room and listened as people were eating each other.)
Same thing with the floating island… can you picture that in some Carnival Cruise catalog… Kathie Lee Gifford rattling on about the “all-you-can-eat” Dead Dorado Nightly Buffet?)… Yann wanted to make the story increasingly “unbelievable, yet compelling.”
I don’t know about you… but there were times when I was asking myself… “Are there such things as floating seven mile wide rugs of seaweed?”
Yann says that he made up the name of “meerkats” and only later did someone tell him that there are things called Meerkats in Disney’s “The Lion King”.

Yann did all of this because he believes that a good novel makes you suspend your disbelief. But he followed this up by saying that this is the same with “a good religion”. It does the same thing. A BAD religion does not succeed at this, and these we call “sects” or “cults”. (His words, not mine). But an interesting perspective I thought.

Anyhoo… the most interesting thing Yann said about the book was when he said he could sum up Life of Pi in three sentences.
These are:
Life is a story.
You can choose your story.
Choose the better story.

The “better” story for Yann (his words) is the one that “makes room for the transcendental.” He said “A story with a transcendent vision is is the better story.”
Yann wanted his readers to grapple with the second story (the story told to the Japanese investigators) and then have to “make a leap” and ask themselves which story they’re going to believe.
One woman came up to the microphone and she was nearly in tears, and she was angry with Yann for doing this at the end of the book, because she complained “now I can’t get that second story out of my head, and it’s ruining the first story entirely and I do not know which one to believe.”
Yann looked perplexed, genuinely did not know how to help this woman, I swear she was about to burst into tears, and then he said… “Well, what do I know? I’m just the author!”
(Much laughter… more cell phones going off… general pandemonium…)

And now for some blatant Yann-trivia:
He says he has not owned a pet in years.

For the past while he has been teaching a university course in Germany (I forget which city), and this course is entitled “The Animal and Literature.”

A mathematician-type in the audience pointed out to Yann that the fractional equivalent for “pi” is apparently 22/7, or 22 over 7. “Is this why you had Pi out on the sea for 227 days?”
Yann shook his bushy head and said “No.” This was news to Yann… he had never even heard of this mathematical co-incidence.
He said that he chose the number 227 because it is a prime number, divisible by only one and itself. A representation of Pi’s solitary struggle for survival.

The naming of “Pi” (after the Piscine Molitor, a swimming pool in Paris) is meant to symbolize a rational rectangular body of water (a swimming pool) cast out into an irrational boundless body of water (the ocean).

“Tsimtsum” is an ancient Hebrew term for the Kabbalah.

Richard Parker was the name of a character in Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym” story… this was a guy that was cannabalized. The name also appears three times in several supposed real-life histories of cannibalism on the high seas.

And this… far and away… the funniest moment of the evening….
Yann said that he has had to address numerous inquiries (from women) asking him if this story is a metaphor for marriage. At first he was perplexed, and kept asking “Why?”
Now he knows better.
All of these women tell him that Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker reflects their own relationships with their husband. They have to:
- train him.
- feed him.
- clean up after him.
- and then he leaves you without saying goodbye!

In all seriousness, Yann’s American editor told him that two women have found the courage to leave their husbands after reading the book.


Anonymous said...

I have read the book as well and was equally upset by the second story. I realised how the first one being so fantastic and exciting made the second so unwelcome. When I read your account of the distraught reader wanting to know why Yann Martel ruined the book by adding the second story I realised that for me the second story had made the first even more beautiful. I am the mother of two young boys of Pi's age and it warms my heart that if a grown man can think of it then they may be able to cope with a deep trauma by creating a parallel story as well. Whether it is considered running away from the awful truth instead of facing it, a form of cowardice if you will, I think coping with the ugliness of life by creating fabulous stories is something we should all consider doing. Maybe there would be more strangers exchanging smiles when crossing each other in the streets, on buses, or even in mega-bookstore/oil change/coffee shop type places. Wouldn't life be more fun, tigers and all...

Cipriano said...

Thank you for these very insightful comments Miss/Mrs./Ms./"anonymous."
You are completely on the mark.
The power of invention and creativity is impossible to exaggerate, overestimate, or improve upon. Admittedly, I love to "sleep-in" whenever I can, but were it not for the wonder of "story" and what stories continue to mean to me, I'm not sure I would ever want to wake up at all!
Some people would say "Oh come on now! Isn't God more important to you than what you just said there?"
And I would reply to them.... "God is a story."
Thank you for tuning in to Bookpuddle today.