Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Religious Rorschach Test (a half-assed review of Yann Martel's Life of Pi)

The narrator is told that Pi Patel's story is capable of making you believe in God. (He comes to agree.)

When you make a claim that bold at the start of a novel, it becomes a test against the whole work is constantly being measured. If you read other reviews of the book, it's almost certain that they'll discuss it in this context. Is it a good story? It's a great story. Is it well told? It's beautifully told. Is it a life-altering religious experience?

Maybe more of a philosophy puzzle. Or a personality test.

Pi Patel tells two versions of his amazing survival at sea on a lifeboat. In one of them, he's accompanied by a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger. In the other version of the story, there are no animals. Either story is harrowing. Either one is an amazing story of a castaway's survival.

Pi isn't going to tell us which one is true.

In the end, how you resolve the conflicting stories will probably say more about the truth of the reader's attitudes, and in that way doesn't seem designed to actually convince you of anything. The floating zoo makes for a better, more poetic story. The story sans tiger is more naturalistic. If you choose to see them as related, that the one is an allegorical retelling of the "truth," that's one style of religion. If you choose to believe that the more fantastical story is true, despite its seeming impossibility, that's another. Or perhaps you say the truth is unknowable, and just choose to appreciate the possibility that either or both stories could be true or false. In that case, Pi has a little contempt for your "dry, yeastless factuality."

A good look in the spiritual mirror is shy of the claim to give you bring about religious epiphany. It's also a far cry more than any average novel can offer you.


Blogger Megan said...

Weird - I just liberated this book from my folks' house yesterday and began it last night. Great minds think alike? You be the judge.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished the Life of Pi today and I could not put it down. It is filled with amazing imagery and a sense of realism in the face of what seems unbelievable. Did it make me believe in God? I already did, but this just reminded me of why I do.

12:34 PM  
Blogger EB said...

Consider me dry & yeastless.

2:01 PM  

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