Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

A boy survives for 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean after the ship carrying him and his family, along with a collection of zoo animals, from India to Canada sinks. He washes ashore in Mexico and is rescued by fishermen. He is the sole survivor of the catastrophe and the only possible source of information about why the ship sank. Representatives of the Japanese owners of the ship interview him in the hospital where he is recovering and the boy tells them how he survived the ordeal. That is the story in 90 words of “dry, yeastless, factuality” as Pi would say.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a much better telling of this same story. Actually, the book contains two versions of the story: the first recounted by Pi to the author and the second in response to doubts about the details of Pi’s story. The author (who is a fictional creation of Yann Martel) begins by telling his own story of how a bad case of writers’ block caused him to travel to India in search of inspiration. In Pondicherry, a town in a small former French colony in southeast India, the author meets a man by the name of Francis Adirubasamy who claims to know a story which he says “will make you believe in God”. Over tea, Mr. Adirubasamy tells the author the story of Pi and how the boy survived the sinking of the cargo ship, Tsimtsum. Intrigued, the author travels to Toronto, Canada, to meet Pi in person, and Pi, now a middle-aged man, agrees to tell the his story of survival. In 100 chapters.

Pi’s story is bracketed at the beginning by the “author’s note” and at the end by the transcript of the Japanese inquiry into the lost ship. These two sections serve to set the book up as a work of non-fiction, even though the reader understands that this is not the case. Life of Pi does not fit perfectly into a single genre: it has elements of magical realism and allegory, it is an epic tale of survival, and it is an analysis of man’s ongoing effort to rise above our animal instincts. Mr. Martel weaves information about post-colonial India, zoo-keeping practices, religious belief systems, and philosophy together to create one of the finest examples of story-telling published within the last decade.

Life of Pi appeals to a broad spectrum of readers thanks to Mr. Martel’s delightful writing style. Within the story are parables giving insight into Pi’s character as well as anecdotes which explain his religious beliefs (Hindu, Christian, and Muslim simultaneously), his name (Picine Molitar Patel), and his knowledge of animal behavior. The book is a pleasure to read for those seeking entertainment, but scratch the surface and Mr. Martel opens windows into ancient cultures, religions, and myths through the deft use of symbolism and bits of history. For example, the ill-fated ship was named Tsimtsum, a Kabalistic term in the Hebrew language describing how God withdrew from a part of infinity to enable our world to exist. The sinking of the Tsimtsum created a space for Pi’s story to unfold in the same way that Pi makes room within himself in order to survive the ordeal.

Pi, as a young boy, is wise and rational as well as emotionally innocent. He is curious and asks many questions in his search for deeper understanding. It is this aspect of his personality which saves him. In primary school, he suffers endless teasing about the name, Picine (French for swimming pool), which his school mates pronounce as “pissing”. In his first act of self-preservation, he decides to establish himself as Pi on the first day of his first year of middle school. In mathematics, pi (Π) is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and is usually expressed as 3.1415 or 22/7. This is important symbolically because pi (Π), which was discovered by the ancient Babylonians about 2000 years before the birth of Jesus, is always the same no matter how big or small the circle. Pi, the character, the deep thinker, loves this aspect of his new name.

Pi’s father owns a zoo and as a matter of his childrens' safety demonstrates the nature of predation by putting a live goat in a hungry tiger’s enclosure, with predictable results. Better to know first hand that predators kill without remorse, says the father to his sons, than to be misled by seemingly placid behavior. The Pondicherry Zoo is famous for its goats because they happily share an enclosure with a formerly lonely rhinoceros. This yields another lesson in which the father explains how surviving an extraordinary situation sometimes depends on unlikely alliances.

Survival is the most obvious theme of the book: surviving childhood humiliations, the everyday dangers of life, and extreme situations. Religious belief, or lack thereof, is a second theme Mr. Martel explores in Life of Pi. More important than both, however, is the uniquely human gift of storytelling. Stories – created, remembered, and passed on through time – differentiate us from animals because without stories and traditions to govern our decisions, we could only act instinctively. Pi practices three religions simultaneously because he cannot choose a favorite: he understands that they are all different versions of the same story of creation, sacrifice, morality, and salvation. Even atheists have faith – that there is no God – and therefore Pi feels kinship with them. It is the agnostics who do not believe in anything that Pi dismisses as having no imagination. Pi says to the author that “choosing to believe in nothing is like choosing immobility as a means of transportation”.

Pi’s story of survival begins when his family decides to close down their zoo and emigrate to Canada in order to escape Indira Gandhi’s heavy handed policies. Many of their animals must cross the ocean in order to reach their new homes and so the family sets up a temporary zoo in the hold of the cargo ship. One night, several days into the voyage, something goes wrong and Pi wakes up in time for the Chinese crew of the Tsimtsum to put an orange life vest on him and toss him into a lifeboat. As the ship sinks, he realizes he is not alone on the boat: there is a zebra with a broken leg and a snarling hyena. After the ship sinks, a tiger swims toward the lifeboat, climbs aboard, and hides under the boat’s canvas cover out of fear and seasickness. Soon an orangutan floating on a large bunch of bananas meets up with the lifeboat and the motley crew leave the detritus of the ship behind. Initially, the passengers on the lifeboat maintain a truce of sorts, but soon the hyena kills and eats the injured zebra. When his hunger returns, the hyena kills the orangutan. Meanwhile, Pi constructs a raft out of life preservers and exiles himself by means of a long rope to avoid being the hyena’s next meal. The tiger finally emerges from hiding and in a rage dispatches the hyena. Pi draws from his knowledge of zoology to establish a boundary enabling him and the tiger to share the forty foot boat. Pi maintains his status as zookeeper by catching fish and turtles for the tiger and in exchange the tiger doesn’t kill him.

The two strange bedfellows ride the Pacific Ocean currents and miraculously reach Mexico where the tiger escapes into the wilderness and a severely dehydrated and sunburned Pi is rescued by fishermen and taken to a hospital. When news of a Tsimtsum survivor reaches the ship’s Japanese owners, two representatives travel to Mexico to interview him. The Japanese listen politely to Pi’s story but question its veracity. Pi then tells them a different version of what happened. At the end, the reader, like the Japanese, can choose between the two stories. Pi recommends the better story.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Life With a Star

REQUIRED READING: Life with a Star by Jiří Weil

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

Life With a Star is a story of survival and hope in the face of certain death and relentless despair. It is about making sense of the senseless and finding beauty in decay. More than any other book I have read, Life With a Star shows how the human spirit can vanquish even the most determined enemy. To understand, consider how you would make sense of your world if a knock on the door meant that the government, with the help of your neighbors, had decided to give away your home and possessions down to the clothes on your back; and that once fully dispossessed, you would be herded like livestock onto a train which would deliver you to your miserable death? What would it be like to be told that while you waited to be called to the train station you must wear a large and bright yellow symbol to make you easy to pick out of a crowd? And what if that symbol was beloved by you and your people, reminding you of your ancient heritage? The answer is that you couldn’t make sense of any of it, even if your race had been despised and persecuted for millennia. So how might you survive such a nightmare; and then, much later on, how would you tell this story without breaking down?

Jiří Weil, the author, survived by pretending to die and then hiding for three years. Much later, when the terror was far enough in the past, he wrote Life With a Star, the story of a Jewish man in Prague, Czechoslovakia, under Nazi occupation, as a way of explaining how it was possible to outmaneuver death of both body and soul. The titular star was a large, yellow star of David that the Nazis ordered all Czech Jews to sew a onto their outer garments for easy visual identification. Failure to wear a star was punishable by death, but wearing the star subjected one to harassment and discrimination; and every minute of every day of life with a star only brought the inevitable call to the train station that much closer.

Life With a Star is surprisingly beautiful and uplifting to read. The protagonist, Josef Roubicek, is a bank clerk who is neither rich nor privileged, but comfortable and in love. Before the German invasion, he and his beautiful Ruzena carried on a long and passionate love affair. Their romance ended when Ruzena and her husband were deported to a so-called work camp. Bereft, alone, and star-clad, Josef sustains his soul with memories of Ruzena and his body with stale bread and watery ox-blood soup. He clings to life even though giving in to death would be much easier for everyone. While his home crumbles around him and he eats food hardly fit for rats, Josef refuses to be defeated. Instead, he grows into a serene and memorable character. Josef dismantles and burns his furniture piece by piece so there is nothing left for the subsequent occupants, except for one “old broken-down coffee table.” To stave off loneliness, he maintains a dialog with Ruzena, reliving many of their conversations and intimate moments. Even though the floor is uncomfortable and he is always cold, Josef sleeps as much as possible because Ruzena frequently visits him in his dreams. When he wakes up to find that Ruzena has gone away again, his only other pleasure is to watch how a leak in the roof gets worse throughout the winter. Just knowing that the apartment will be uninhabitable by the time the Nazis get around to moving someone else in feels like victory.

Through the Jewish Community, a quasi-governmental organization made up of Jews doing the bidding of the Nazis, Josef was ordered to work in a Hebrew cemetery. He and his co-workers dug graves, raked leaves, and buried the fortunate dead. During breaks over tea, Josef and the other men became friendly – but not close – for reasons they all understood. When Josef was called to the train station, a clerical error gave him an opportunity to walk away, and in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity, he did just that. From then on, Josef understood that he was in an end game: that it was only a matter of time until his name came up again. During this stolen time, he appeared to go about business as usual, but out of sight he made some dangerous friends. One fine spring day, Josef met a man named Josef Materna, a Czech who hated the Nazis, and accepted an invitation to visit. Materna’s mother soothed Josef’s soul with fresh-baked buns while Materna and his allies, a fearless group of domestic terrorists, helped Josef find the courage within himself to rise above the ugly hatred that had invaded his world.

Josef’s relationships with the living included his aunt and uncle and a cat named Tomas. The aunt and uncle had taken Josef in as a child, treating him as their own until the Nazi invasion. Fear turned them into angry and bitter people and they drove Josef out of their lives. Meanwhile Josef allowed Tomas, who sought refuge from stone-throwing children, to live in his apartment. Josef and Tomas found comfort in each other: Tomas offered companionship and Josef shared bits of his meager meals. To the aunt and uncle, this small act of humanity was proof of Josef’s ingratitude for everything they had done for him because, they said, it put them at risk. In spite of their meanness Josef remained loyal to his aunt and uncle, and lovingly bid them farewell as they boarded the train to their doom.

To this day there are people who do not want to believe that the Holocaust happened. But it did happen. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, the Jewish population in eastern Europe plummeted from 15.3 million in 1933 to about 5 million within a decade, either from the genocide or by emigration. The Nazis themselves kept detailed records of the people they sent to their deaths: inventories of their possessions, birth certificates, passports, school transcripts, bank statements, and death certificates. In addition to the Nazi’s self-documentation, the Allies using still and movie cameras captured sickening images of the mass graves and death camps. To see the footage of living skeletons liberated from the Nazi camps and the piles of bones in the graves is a devastating, but necessary, experience.

Hatred of and violence against Jews dates back to antiquity when pagan Romans and Greeks desecrated Hebrew temples and forced Jews to disperse, hence the term “diaspora.” A Jewish scholar from Austria, Moritz Steinschneider, coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1860 in his analysis of German feelings of superiority over the Semitic races – Jews, Arabs, and Assyrians. In 1880 Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist, published a pamphlet called “The Way to the Victory of German Spirit Over the Jewish Spirit,” in which he narrowed the definition of anti-Semitism to refer only to Jews. This pamphlet helped spark a social movement which laid the groundwork for politics based on genocide.

Approximately six million European Jews died at the hands of the National Socialist German Workers Party – under the leadership of a charismatic madman – following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. Economic collapse, catastrophic inflation, and wounded national pride created an environment ripe for demagoguery. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist with a mother complex, rose to power by tapping into Germans’ long-simmering resentment of Jews – a somewhat insular people who seemed prosperous in good times and bad – and called upon his countrymen to join him in bringing them down. It wasn’t enough to brutalize the Jews, to burn their homes and businesses, and commit random acts of violence against them. And, there were too many simply to deport, even if another nation would have taken them. Adolf Hitler declared that only a “final solution” would rid Germany, and eventually the world, of the “Jewish problem” forever. With chilling efficiency, the Nazis created a government program to round up, seize the assets of, and kill every Jew within the nation’s boundaries.

It was the Nazi’s programmatic anti-Semitism that enabled otherwise decent people to turn away as their Jewish neighbors were marched off to death camps. Meanwhile, the Nazis staged parades, rallies and other events to ignite nationalistic pride and to celebrate the superiority of the Aryan race. The message was simple: Germany could only achieve greatness if the Jews were eliminated. To reach that end, Hitler set out to “reclaim” the German Empire, first by annexing formerly German land in Czechoslovakia, then by invading Austria, Poland, and Hungary. Jews who had fled to those countries were once again in jeopardy. By creating a common enemy in the Jews, Hitler gained the allegiance of many eastern Europeans. Meanwhile, there were secret soldiers undermining the Nazis from within. Many so-called Aryans risked their lives to offer comfort and safe harbor to fugitive Jews. Others either through destructive acts or outright deception did their part to weaken the Nazis. Finally, good triumphed over evil and the nightmare came to an end.

Jiří Weil, a survivor of the Nazi’s surreal nightmare, pays tribute to the secret soldiers who risked life and limb to stop Hitler. Josef Materna exemplifies the internal resistance; Materna’s mother, with her warm buttered bread, represents the good people who kept starving Jews alive with illicit gifts of food; and Josef Roubicek with his child-like innocence reveals the cruelty of hate. Too many Jews were caught off guard and, like deer paralyzed by headlights, easily killed. Life With a Star celebrates the beauty of humanity which gave Josef and others like him the hope and courage necessary to survive.