Life of Stories

“That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it,

the selective transforming of reality?

The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”

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Over the recent Christmas festivities I took the chance to catch up with a film that I had wanted to see for ages. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch Mr. Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”. If you’ve not see the film or read the book then probably all you know about the plot is that a young boy is trapped on a lifeboat, adrift at sea and all he has for company is a Bengal tiger.

It seemed to me that although the visuals were stunning the more I watched the film the more I came to the conclusion that in all the splendid 3D CGI effects the story had been squashed flat. It was a former shadow of itself. I do understand both the kind of palimpsest quality of filmmaking – a story from one medium overwritten in another – and the interpretation that a new storyteller brings to their own retelling. This retelling, however, seemed to have lost the real essence of what Life of Pi was really about – which I think is, stories. The stories we choose to believe because they provide us with meaning, which ones we want others to believe and what they tell us about ourselves.

In my reading there are at least five stories in the book Life of Pi. You may find more. In fact the beginning of the book is a complete fiction written by the author about how, supposedly, he ended up in Pondicherry in India to write one story on which he gave up and, by a chance meeting, was lead to meet the fictional Pi and so tell that story instead.

Then there is the story of Pi’s young life, how he got his name and dealt with that and how he grew up in the zoo that eventually had to be sold. Within this story there is yet another story of how he came to hear the stories of three religions and how he came to embrace all three – Hindu, Christianity and Islam.

The “main” story is that of the Pi’s life adrift on the lifeboat. Given that we all know this has to happen largely because of the picture on the front of the book and the trailers for the film, chapter 37 starts with a memorably short sentence:

“The ship sank.”

I laughed out loud when I read this, an excellent example of brevity and succinctness. This is, supposedly, the main meat of the story and in fact seen as THE story. Yet given all that has gone on before just how important or different is it? Dramatic it certainly is and written in the style of personal directness and with attention to details that I found very engaging. However, like all personal stories it is only when we come to tell others about it that the very spirit of the ‘story’ is challenged.

It is at the end of Pi’s story that the real issues come about. Two Japanese insurance auditors are attempting to find out how it was that the ship came to sink. They don’t believe a word of Pi’s story. There is a discussion about only believing what you see and Pi is placed in the same position as the three Holy Men he met much earlier when he lived in the Zoo. The difference here is that whereas Pi had believe those Holy Men storytellers and made the most of what he heard for his life but here and now his audience doesn’t believe his story.

The insurance auditors fall back into the arms of reason for their own comfort and safety, although Pi counters with:

“But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bath water.”

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So tell us facts, they say that reflect reality. Pi says:

“Isn’t telling about something – using words – already something of an invention?”

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“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?”

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Finally Pi accepts what they are asking for:

“You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeast less factuality.”

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So Pi creates the final story, the one that his insurance auditors will accept. No tigers or other animals. No supposedly strange events, creatures or chance meetings on the high sea.

Pi asks the auditors which is the better story, his original one with the tiger or the dry, ‘factual’ one he just told them. The auditors go with the original story with the animals. Pi points out that the real facts, on which they all agree; the ship sank, he was adrift for 227 days, he lost his entire family and still suffers. Neither story accounts for the ship’s sinking, materially affects anyone else or can be proved and so must be taken on trust. They all agree that the story with the animals is better –

“And so it goes with God.” Says Pi.

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Working as a psychotherapist from a Constructivist perspective, and as an ex-Catholic, this says to me that God is more concerned with where we start and where we end. We will al have to take account of, and be responsible for the choices that we make and how we treat each other during our lives. It is these choices that determine how we are at the end of our lives, not where we end up because in some senses we all going to the same fork in the road – death.

So, stop trying to control every aspect of your life and everyone around you in the hope that you can change the supposed final destination. Instead, find the balance between asserting yourself and making the best of what’s around you. Neither fall into the sea and drown or stay on the floating island and be eaten by the trees. Keep with the flow, meet your personal challenges as best you can, influence and engage with those around you so that you all survive and thrive. In this way you may become the best person that you can be and so both enjoy the life you have now and make the best start for the life that is to come.

After all, both Pi and Richard Parker lived to make more choices. True, Richard Parker jumped out of the boat and disappeared into the forest without a final, romantic?, backwards glance and yet so it is in life – we can never really know the effect that we have on people and even those whom we explicitly decide to help and go out of our way to support may never really understand or recognise or thank us for our actions. Those actions are still ours to express. They are our story.

So, Mr. Lee has given us the sixth story in his retelling. However, given all the technical wizardry at his disposal, for the material he used and the ideas that were within it, he has presented me with a flat story, an immobile story. Brilliant to watch and yet in the end unsatisfactory, unfulfilling and somewhat empty.

I was hoping for a film that presented a story that might help me “see a bit further or a bit higher or even a bit differently”.

Page numbers come from:

Life of Pi by Yann Martel Canongate 2003 paperback

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