Hello! My name is Grete (pronounced as if there is an “a” at the end, like Greta Garbo, though in fact there is an “e”) and I’ll be writing book reviews for The Public Queue. I hope they will be helpful, but at the very least I’ll be able to get some stuff off my chest without anyone interrupting me. Yay blogs! Now, on with the show….
For my first post, I’ve chosen to review a well-loved book from way back in 2001 that I only just got around to: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Generally, when I see a book in the hands of everyone and their mother, to the point where I can recognize the title with a mere glance at the color scheme of the cover, my instinct is to avoid. It’s not that I don’t trust the taste of the general public–well, yes, it is that. I’m a snob. Now you know. Need I remind you of The Da Vinci Code?
Anyway, I put off reading this book for 11 years. In that time, a few people whose artistic preferences tend to be in line with mine assured me that it was indeed a very good read. So when I came across Life of Pi in all its blue and orange glory in the One Dollar Bookstore in Long Beach, I took the plunge. And I have to say, it was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.
Martel’s writing style is youthful and imaginative and, unlike many authors whose writing captures the interest of every book club and airport traveler in America, he does not give into cliché. He is a true craftsman. The depth of Martel’s talent for storytelling is most acutely revealed in the overall format of Pi: the author interviewing the main character as he (the protagonist) reflects on the unexpected adventures of his youth. I myself couldn’t tell where the fiction started; it was seamless. Which brings me to the thing I loved most about the book: its celebration of story, of myth, of tale.
Without going into too much detail about the ending (though if you haven’t read it by now, you don’t really get to be worried about spoilers) I’ll say that there comes to be some question about whether any of what you had just spent three lovely poolside days reading actually happened at all. Up until this point, I was simply intrigued with the unusual plot and beautiful words. I thought it was good, original fun. But then I realized, Martel has something to say here. And I like it.
Does it matter if something is “true” or not? Is “truth” more than fact, or non-fiction? How do the stories we write about ourselves–and make no mistake, we are always writing them–help us? Heal us? Define us? There are the questions that Martel asks–similar to some of the themes in Tim Burton’s movie Big Fish, actually. But I digress.
These questions were and continue to be particularly meaningful to me as I navigate my way out of and away from the Christian religion in which I grew up. Slowly but surely, it has become apparent to me that I am unconvinced of the ‘factual-ness’ of most–if not all–Bible stories. Can I still get behind the deeper nature of what this tradition commands–compassion, generosity, faith, sacrifice–if Jesus was conceived by actual sex or if Job never lived and therefore never actually suffered? To put it simply: is mythology wrong?
Martel’s plea seems to be that we must not let our love of being right ruin us for fantasy, or, maybe more importantly, cause us to sit in judgment of the stories of others. This is an important thing for us to consider, especially those of us who are highly, and some would say over-, educated. Why do we care whether something happened exactly the way that someone says it did? (Now, if that someone is a person in power, say…a caucasian straight male, and that person is talking about those over whom he holds power, then yes, I would say it might be important to get “the facts.” But I think Martel’s work is a defense of fiction that works to beautify, that lifts up those who suffer, that highlights the meaning in things otherwise passed over as mundane or banal.)
So, to close, I think you should read this book. I don’t really care who you are; I recommend it. Maybe read it with a friend or two, because it will definitely stimulate discussion. Or call up your high school English teacher to talk about it. I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear from you.