Life of Pi, Yann Martel, (Harcourt, Inc., N.Y., 2001).
This book has been around my house for quite some time but I have only recently discovered it and read it. It was given to my late wife by her best friend but I don’t remember her saying she had read it (she probably did). Anyway, after two different book buyers were here buying books I found it staring up at me every time I passed by this particularly ravished bookcase. And, because of the publicity about the movie I finally decided to read it. I confess that I had been avoiding it because of the title. All my life I have instinctively avoided anything having to do with arithmetic or mathematics above the level of basic addition and subtraction and I assumed that Pi was involved with that mysterious universe. This Pi is not, except in an extremely marginal way.
It turns out this book is quite fascinating, as they say these days “a jolly good read” (I absolutely despise using verbs as nouns), but fascinating for an unusual reason. A clue to this can be seen on a statement on the cover that reads, “A story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction.” I don’t know about the “soul-sustaining” bit but it certainly says something about the power of fiction. It is in fact a most outrageous and fantastic work of fiction, but even so you experience it as a real adventure. It is the finest example of verisimilitude I have ever encountered. Realistically, you have to know it is absolutely fictional, but that doesn’t seem to matter as you are completely caught up in the story anyway. It proves to me that fiction merely has to be “realistic” to be somehow “real.” The critic, W. H. Gass, once wrote: “…The worlds which… the writer creates, are only imaginatively possible ones; they need not be at all like any real one, and the metaphysics which any fiction implies is likely to be meaningless or false if taken as nature’s own.” But of course there always has to be some connection to reality, in this case the ocean is real, lifeboats are real, tigers are real, as are orangutans and zebras, animal training and zoos, but putting all of this together in one small lifeboat for a period of 277 days, and leading the reader to believe and enjoy it is a most remarkable feat.
I am not a great fan of Hemingway, although I was when I was in college, as were most of my peers. But as Hemingway’s reputation rested so heavily on PR his reputation has diminished over the years. Even so he did sometimes offer observations about books that are worthy of thought : “All good books have one thing in common—they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you’ve read one of them you will feel all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people, and the weather.”
Life of Pi seems to me like one of those books that may well be “truer than true.” Having now read it I am sure it will never completely leave me, the story is so compelling, but at the same time so completely far-fetched, so thought provoking and philosophical, and at the same time sometimes so fantastic as to leave you pondering not only the nature of fiction but also the meaning of life and relationships in general. Once you get past the first chapter or two (which I found not obviously connected to the actual story) you find it one of those really well-written books that are hard to put down until you know the ending. The ending of this book is largely left up to the reader.
I do not believe a movie made out of this book can possibly capture the real essence of the story although I can see how the situation can be exploited for that purpose. I rarely watch motion pictures anymore (as they are always far too fictional, being nothing but make-believe), but I suspect I will make an exception for this one if only to prove the point. Books yes, motion pictures not so much. I suspect if you watch the movie but don’t read the book you will encounter two widely different experiences, one rather profoundly different from the other.