Life of Pi

I've read Life of Pi by Yann Martel 3 times, the last time being about a year ago. It easily makes it into my top ten list of all time favourite books. Well, top 5 actually. I didn't think it could ever be filmed successfully, so when Ang Lee's movie was released, of course I had to go and take a look just for curiosity's sake.

The film, as it turns out, is a triumph. Not only does it accomplish the difficult task of presenting the fantasy adventure of Pi's unlikely ocean voyage in an open lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger for company but it manages to present the philosophical undergirding which gives the novel such unsettling power.

Life of Pi is primarily about religion. Note: it is not a religious book but a book about religion.  A young boy who shares his name with a mathematical symbol survives a shipwreck and a long period alone in a lifeboat. At the end of the book the reader is presented with two different versions of his survival and invited not so much to choose which version is "true" but to judge which version is the better story. This is a metaphor, or perhaps better, an illustration of the way religious narrative works. A religion, suggests Martel, is a narrative which explains the universe and the human condition. It is a story which not only explains the existence of the universe but gives clues as to the universe's ultimate purpose and of our part in it. To ask of a religious narrative questions of mere facticity is to ask the wrong questions. To reduce the story of the universe to lists of facts and dates is not just unhelpful; it does injury to us by excluding, as a matter of course, all considerations of meaning.  So, at the start of the book Pi is portrayed as being simultaneously a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. In much the same way that the book gives two stories to account for Pi's survival, Pi is able to draw on 3 stories to explain the Universe.

The theme of story runs all the way through the book. There is the fanciful story of Pi's naming for example. There is a story of how Pi came to be interviewed and the book to be written. Stories interweave and nest inside each other like a Shakespearean play within a play. So the reader reads a story of a man writing a story in which he is told a story.... and who is reading ours, the reader's story? And who is writing it?

All of this philosophical complexity is contained in the book by the use of appendices and by editorial comment from the (fictional) 'author'. In the film it is handled by presenting quite lengthy conversations between the adult Pi and his interviewer. It's a technique which is potentially clumsy and intrusive but Ang Lee has pulled it off.

This is another movie to see in 3D if you have the option. The computer graphics are stunning: shots of sea and sky where the lighting and composition are perfect because they have been manufactured to be perfect; where weather and stars and sea and creatures can be manipulated as elements in a great work of art for their aesthetic and their metaphorical value. And despite this being such a profound and intelligent piece, both as book and film, it works very well also as an adventure story, nicely paced and visually pleasing.

Having seen The Hobbit only a few days before, this is a deeper, richer, better film; a work of art as opposed to an amusement. I will probably buy the DVD when it comes out as I suspect I will want to watch the film at least as often as I have read the book. 

Comments

Merv said…
Thanks. You have enhanced my appreciation of the movie ... and I totally agree.
Katherine said…
You're the fifth person to recommend it, but the first who liked it for the same reasons that I liked the book. I really must go and see it while I can still in 3D.

From a literary point of view, (rather than a philosophical or spiritual), it reminded me a bit of John Fowles's 'The Magus'. Especially with the idea that there could be multiple endings. Have you ever read that book Kelvin?
VenDr said…
yes, several times. There is quite a similarity in the treatment of story/reality. There are two versions of the Magus. In the second edition Fowles changes the ending somewhat to try and make it less opaque. It is still a little baffling though. Or a lot baffling actually. But that's one of the things I like about the book, that it leaves you questioning and reeling.

I also like the French Lieutenant's Woman. It deals with similar themes, but in a more refined, literary way
VenDr said…
and the French Lieutenants Woman is very specific about the multiple ending thing. I also love the way that John Fowles wrote himself into the novel as both God and the Devil; a nice little theological touch from a heracleitan/pagan/agnostic like Fowles.
Anonymous said…
"To ask of a religious narrative questions of mere facticity is to ask the wrong questions."

Yes, but who is asking this? And one cannot seriously avoid asking, of Christianity and its principal religious rival, 'Did this person really exist? And did he really say these things? or do these things?' One can, I suppose, conceive of a kind of Buddhism without Siddhartha. But Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the testimony about Jesus.

"To reduce the story of the universe to lists of facts and dates is not just unhelpful; it does injury to us by excluding, as a matter of course, all considerations of meaning."
Agreed. But unless the Incarnation and the Resurrection really happened, then 'considerations of meaning' don't really mean much.

Brian
VenDr said…
Who is asking this? Certainly the church where I began my Christian walk; where I was told that if I didn't believe in Noah's flood then I couldn't be a Christian. In other words the only truth recognised was factul truth and if the Bible wasn't factually true in every detail it wasn't true at all.

It' an interesting question to ask youself, "if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, would that make any difference to my faith?" and before you answer, think of the first disciples, for whom Jesus had certainly not been raised and for whom he was not personal saviour and Lord. And yet they left their nets and followed. Followed whom and what and for why? And the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed was certainly not that he had died for your sins, because, obviously, he hadn't. So what was it? So in Jesus' early proclamation there was obviously some powerful considerations of meaning that were entirely independent of the resurrection, and given what his first disciples probably thought about him (and maybe what he thought of himself) of the incarnation as well.

If we go back to Life of Pi, the book doesn't proclaim a completely agnostic view of facts. So, there was a shipwreck, Pi survived and his family were drowned: in terms of the novel, these are "facts"but the story of how these things came to happen is not easily proven. So Jesus lived,died in the time of the procurator Pontius Pilate and his disciples reported powerful experiences of him after his death. These, as far as anything can have that claim, are historical facts. The religious narrative we have woven around these facts over the last 2 millennia are quite another matter.
liturgy said…
Thanks, as always, Kelvin.

Your comment, above, responding to Brian, helpfully expand your wonderful post. Like you, I love the book. And the film (and the 3D). This, and the Hobbit, are gifts, certainly to me, for preaching and teaching into this year. One of my constant problems is to shut up my theologising mind! In the Hobbit I wanted to "pause" and take notes!

Blessings

Bosco
Anonymous said…
'....think of the first disciples, for whom Jesus had certainly not been raised and for whom he was not personal saviour and Lord.'
Not YET is the decisive qualification. If Jesus hadn't risen from the dead, I don't think anyone would have written a 'gospel' - because there would be no Gospel. The Gospels are written after the event of the Resurrection.
"And yet they left their nets and followed. Followed whom and what and for why?"
Peter answers that (if you trust the historicity of John's Gospel - very many critics don't): 'To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.' The character and quality of their early faith is certainly problematic

"And the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed was certainly not that he had died for your sins, because, obviously, he hadn't. So what was it?"

Again, the words missing are 'Not Yet'. Otherwise we are back with Renan's nonsense!

"So in Jesus' early proclamation there was obviously some powerful considerations of meaning that were entirely independent of the resurrection, and given what his first disciples probably thought about him (and maybe what he thought of himself) of the incarnation as well."

No, that can't be correct. His disciples followed him presumably because they thought he was the Messiah - but their traditional Jewish understanding of Messiahship had to be changed, and this is what Jesus was doing when he introduced to their minds the shovking idea of the Suffering Servant conjoined with the kingly Messiah - something totally unknown in Judaism heretofore. The idea appalled Peter (and presumably the offended disciples in John 6 who turned away from him) but is central to the Last Supper. As for the Resurrection of the dead, this was central to the belief of all Jews except the Sadducees, so what Jesus proclaimed could not have been "entirely independent of the resurrection".
As for Noah, I'm fairly sure Jesus beleived in the historicity of this patriarch.
Brian
VenDr said…
But your argument makes no sense.
The disciples weren't inspired by some "not yet"; by some theology that would be worked out some years after all of them had died, but by what they saw and experienced in their NOW.

And the Gospel accounts infer that they didn't think he was Messiah when they first started to follow. They wondered, certainly.

We are told that Jesus came from his temptation and proclaimed the Gospel. He was proclaiming it 3 years before his crucifixion so it simply CAN'T have been about his dying for us or his rising again.

His disciples followed not because he had died and risen but because he proclaimed Good News (Gospel) which was so compelling they left their nets and followed. The whole business of sacrifice for our sins was not nutted out until decades, some might argue centuries later.

Peter said that Jesus had the words of eternal life. So what were those words? I don't know,well, not exactly, but I know what they were not: they were not "Jesus has died for your sins"

And I don't think the concept of resurrection common in first century proto-Judaism had much in common with the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus.

As for Noah.... well I doubt that Jesus knew that North America was there, or would have been able to grasp Einstein's general theory of relativity. I'm sure he did, like almost all first century Jews, believe in the historicity of Noah. So what?
Howard Pilgrim said…
Thanks for recommending this film, Kelvin. I read it at 5.15pm and by 6 my wife and I were sitting in our local cinema waiting for it to begin. Stunning!
I have not yet read the book, but tried to start it once at someone's place, a few years ago. I will try again. I agree wholeheartedly with you that our instinct to trust in "a better story" lies at the heart of faith in God.
Warm regards,
Howard Pilgrim