Over the past year or so my novel Journal of a UFO Investigator has been compared to Don Quixote. It’s been compared to Catcher in the Rye, to The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Wizard of Oz. Now my friend Victoria Zula has suggested a comparison I hadn’t heard before, with Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 novel Life of Pi, and that’s got me to thinking.
Martel’s book and mine share the ancient, perennially fruitful theme of the transformative journey. They share an interest, nay obsession, with religion. They also share a deep concern with the nature of truth, with the relation of imagination to reality, and Martel’s take on this issue is rather different from mine. Truth be told, this is why I found his extraordinary book rather disturbing when I read it several years ago.
Life of Pi, for those who haven’t yet read it, is a first-person story within a first-person story. (It resembles in this respect H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine—and you’ll see in a moment why I bring Wells’ novel into the discussion.) The speaker in the frame narrative is an unnamed novelist who may or may not be intended to be Martel himself. He’s traveling in India when a chance acquaintance tells him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”
Eventually the narrator hears the story in full from the man who, as a teenage boy, experienced it. This man is an Indian living in Toronto, named Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short. (We could go on at length about the possible symbolism of the name.) He tells of crossing the Pacific in 1977 with his family and his family’s zoo—his father had been a zookeeper in Pondicherry—aboard a Japanese cargo vessel called the Tsimtsum. Early in the voyage the ship sinks. Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger.
(Again, the symbolism of names: In the cosmogonic system of the 16th-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, tsimtsum is the Hebrew word for God’s primordial act of shrinking Himself, so as to create a non-God space in which creation can happen. Martel’s use of the word is unlikely to be accidental, since at the very beginning of his narrative Pi claims to have written a religious-studies thesis on “certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria.” But how do we understand Pi’s story better once we’ve made this connection? That’s what I haven’t been able to figure out.)
Over months at sea, boy and tiger find a modus vivendi, which turns—at least in Pi’s mind—to a sort of friendship. They have fantastic adventures: an eerie sightless encounter with another castaway in the middle of the ocean; the discovery of a floating island with a secret so sinister I shudder even to think about it. (This, by the way, is the part of the novel I’ve remembered most vividly over the years.) At last the lifeboat comes to shore in Mexico. Pi is taken to the hospital where he begins to recover from his ordeal. There he’s visited by two investigators from Japanese officialdom, interested in finding out what caused the Tsimtsum to sink. He tells them his marvelous, compelling, bewitching story of life at sea with a tiger. They don’t believe a word of it.
Naturally enough. H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller also had to put up with some skepticism, when he came back from the Umpty-Umpth Century CE with his wild tales of Morlocks and Eloi. But Queen Victoria was on the throne when Wells wrote The Time Machine. The belief in an objective Truth Out There—capital T and all the rest—has taken some body blows since then. “But is it not some hoax?” Wells’ frame-narrator asks. “Do you really travel through time?” And the Time Traveller looks him in the eye and says, “Really and truly I do.” Pi’s procedure with his Japanese interrogators is a little bit different.
At first he defends his story, and the reader—at least this reader—cheers each point he scores. (As when Pi turns out to be right, bananas do float in water.) But when the investigators still refuse to believe him, he doesn’t say, as the Time Traveller would: Sorry, I’m telling you the truth, if you won’t accept it that’s your problem. Instead, he asks: Well, what kind of story would you like to hear? Then he tells a variant story, and in those seven and a half pages subverts the story that’s held us in thrall—persuaded us to swallow all its unlikelinesses and implausibilities—for 190 earlier pages.
“Is that better?” he says at the end. And: “[W]hich story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” The investigators vote for the original story, the one with the tiger and all the rest. “Thank you,” says Pi. “And so it goes with God.”
So there is Truth deconstructed, its capital T permanently demoted to lower-case. It’s “the better story” that will stand as the truth. And this is where I get uneasy. Very uneasy, in fact. A lot of the anti-Semitic mythology that has spilled so much blood across Jewish history is a rip-roaring good story, a story to make your flesh creep and draw you in with its power no less than the floating island of Life of Pi. Does it then become true, because it’s so entertaining? What’s a more exciting Passover ritual—the spooky blood-rite conjured up by the anti-Semites, blood drained from a Christian sacrificial victim and ceremonially eaten within the matzahs? Or the real-life Seder, with its boredom and family quarrels and unending whining on the theme of when-are-we-going-to-eat? I know which one I’d pick, for “the better story.” The only trouble is, it’s a damned lie.
What does Pi mean by, “And so it goes with God”? That God, even if presumed to exist, is no standard of absolute Truth, since God no less than everyone else is a sucker for “the better story”? Or that we should believe in God, because a world with Deity is a “better story” than one without? (And is this why Pi’s story is supposed to “make you believe in God”?)
Pi himself, though devout in at least three different religions, makes no secret of his preference for atheists over agnostics. At least these have a “story” they tell themselves and others. Says Pi: “I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love! My God’—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.” (The quoted words are the entirety of chapter 22.)
Pi’s judgment is endorsed, in almost the same language, by the frame-narrator at the end of his mock preface: “If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.” To which I itch to retort that reality, crude though it may be—and an agnostic might say, often uncertain—has the decisive advantage of being real. Jews do not in fact devour Christian blood at the Passover Seder, no matter how good a story it makes to say that we do.
I may seem like an odd person to make this complaint. Isn’t Danny Shapiro, the protagonist of Journal of a UFO Investigator, a supremely unreliable narrator? Haven’t I heard from readers of my book the cry—sometimes irritated, sometimes pleased—that “you don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined” in Danny’s story? It’s true that the play between imagination and reality, or between inner and outer reality as I prefer to think of it, is central to my novel. (That was what induced a scholar of 17th-century Spanish literature at Northern Michigan University to write a conference paper comparing my book with Don Quixote.) But whereas I believe that both “realities” are real, both important, they’re real and important in different ways. The story Danny actually lives, and the story he feels inside him, are both the essential Danny. But they’re not the same. It’s in the intersection of the two distinct and distinguishable realities that human truth lies.
So is Martel right about the nature of truth, or am I? Is his the better story, or is mine? And are these two questions really the same? I’ll leave the second question to the readers of our books, the first and the third to the philosophers. However they’re resolved, it’s a privilege to read a novel as wonderful as Life of Pi, to have been captivated and stimulated and ultimately angered by it. This is a book to call forth the ancient Talmudic blessing of the God who may not exist, but if He does has “given of His wisdom to flesh and blood.”
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