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Holy Books and Made Up Stories: A Reflection on “The Life of Pi”

fierce tigerMy wife and saw The Life of Pi last week, a 3D movie by Ang Lee, based on a novel by Yann Martel.  A fabulous movie, a visual feast!

Martel’s story has two themes:  seeking God, and seeking courage.  For about nine tenths of the story the main character, an East Indian boy named Pi, is adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.  Then, at the end, he tells insurance investigators another story about what happened to him after the freighter carrying him and his family sunk in a storm.  His second story involves cannibalism and violence inflicted by himself.  The viewer wonders which story really happened.

A friend who also saw the movie emailed me:  Which story do you believe, the tiger one, or the other?
Well, an obvious answer is that neither really happened.  Both stories were made up by the novelist.  But, what was Martel’s purpose in juxtaposing two such stories, one with surreal elements and mythic proportion, the other with sordid details too common in our real world?   I found that I could not dismiss the question so facilely.  It deserved to be pondered.

I emailed my friend:

In earlier times, people did not distinguish between factual, inter-subjectively verifiable truth and myth. People believed in (took as true) whatever authorities taught, and/or what made a huge impact upon them through personal experience.
The really interesting thing about The Life of Pi is that it presents both kinds of truth, the more primeval kind, which gives meaning to what happens in the heart, mind, and soul of an individual, and the inter-subjectively verifiable kind, which is what the Japanese company investigators were after at the end of Martel’s story.

To answer my friend’s question, I’d say that I believe both stories told in The Life of Pi. The second story gives an account of what could have happened in the real world, what might have been recorded by a video camera. On the other hand, the tiger story tells much better what happened to Pi’s heart, mind, and soul during his survival ordeal.

I emailed my friend a couple more examples of the kind of truth that Martel conveys in his novel:  not literal, but literary truth.

Here’s the first example:  In his book, The Things They Carried, Vietnam vet and author, Tim O’Brien, begins with a documentary approach, describing in great detail the things that he and his buddies carried in their packs, such as cigarettes, chewing gum, bottle openers, band-aids, rubber bands, pictures of their sweethearts, pen knives, razors, batteries, cassette players and tapes, etc. He goes on and on to describe exhaustively  what went into the often sixty-pound burdens that soldiers humped through ninety five degree heat. Then he begins to talk about other things they carried with them, like fear, and rage, and memories of home. Next, he begins to tell war stories. Because he’s been writing in documentary mode, the reader takes those stories as factual; and they are, at first. But as the book unfolds O’Brien starts to weave in fictional details, and by the time he’s two thirds through he’s telling completely made up stories. Then he reveals to the reader what he’s been up to. He says that his made up stories tell better what the war was really like than the strictly factual ones. Fiction can be truer than fact. But what kind of truth are we talking about when we recognize this?

Here’s the second example:  A third grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White to her class. Then she asked them whether they believed spiders can really talk. They all said no, of course not. Spiders can’t talk! Then she asked whether the things that Charlotte, the spider, says to Wilbur, the pig, about how special and wonderful he was, were true. They all said yes, Charlotte told the truth. They understood, with their third grade minds, that made up stories can speak truth to us, truth about our own lives, we who live outside book stories.

Would that believers in holy books could dig what the authors of The Life of Pi, and What They Carried, and Charlotte’s Web convey about the veracity-potential of made up stories.

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