Friday, May 05, 2006

Soul-Searching Fiction: A Mini-Review of “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

Now I understand what all the fuss has been about over this prize-winning book! It took me awhile to get around to reading “Life of Pi,” the genre-bending novel by Yann Martel. I thank my friend, Andrew Cvitanov, for recommending this book to me. Depending upon what page you are on and which of the one hundred chapters you are currently ingesting, the book feels like a tragedy, a comedy and a romance. Yann does a magical job of bringing us on a journey – a voyage, if you will – of deprivation, intrigue, challenge, terror, mystery and epiphany.

I will not give away any of the interesting and surprising plot twists, but I will reveal that the author leads the most discerning readers down some interesting philosophical paths – exploring issues of metaphysics (the nature of reality) and epistemology (how do we know what we know?). He uses rich language of metaphor and allegory as he holds a mirror to the human soul and asks us to examine – to compare and contrast – ourselves with the rest of the created order.

At its core, this is a deeply spiritual book. On a technical level, I take issue with some of the underlying theology of the author; he is more syncretistic and pantheistic than I am comfortable with in my own belief system. But those theological differences did not prevent me from marveling at Martel’s adroit ability to weave a tale that poses deep existential questions.

Martel, speaking through the voice of his protagonist, Piscine “Pi” Patel, makes some stunning and extraordinary observations about animal behavior, including the human species, that by themselves make this book a worthwhile read:

“Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students – muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright – reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.”

“I never had problems with my fellow scientists. Scientists are a friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose minds are preoccupied with sex, chess and baseball when they are not preoccupied with science.”
(Page 5)

“I’ll be honest about it. It is not the atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the Garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, we must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” (Page 28)

This is a terrific book to read along with family and friends. My edition of the book contains an appendix with twenty-three intriguing discussion questions about the book and its meaning.



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