Tuesday, February 5, 2013

“Life of Pi” and the Meaning of Memoir

Monday night Katie and I saw “Life of Pi,” a film we’ve had on our list for some time but never got around to. It was an exceptionally moving experience for each of us, but for different reasons. Katie can tell her story if she wishes, but this is my story.

The fact that we have two stories—having seen the same movie and only last night—helps me make one point of this post, which is a point of “Pi” too. This is that how we remember the experiences of our lives is up to us.

If you are a doctrinaire Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, you may be put off by the all-Gods-are-equal spiritualism of the story, in which an Indian boy from Pondicherry is raised honoring the 33 millions gods of Hinduism, then finds Jesus (at age 10 or so), then converts to Islam. Or maybe adds it on like the addition to a house.

But one of the beautiful points of the film is that we have something to learn from every faith and every person—even from our father if, like the one in the movie, he is a science-believing atheist.

Pi’s father runs a zoo, but decides to sell the animals to Americans. This puts the family (dad, mom, Pi, and brother Ravi) on a steamer in the Pacific, its hold loaded with zoo animals. Then comes a shipwreck. Pi is left alone in a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

“Life of Pi” is about what happens. And about what Pi later says happened.

I have been in a “shipwreck.” As I will tell in the memoir I am writing, the famous painting Raft of the Medusa by Géricault became a symbol for me of the conditions in which I found myself. I actually stood in front of this painting in the spring of 1971 contemplating the situation I was living at the time.

What I am writing is a version of those events. It might not be the only version, but it will be mine.

I knew nothing about “Life of Pi” before seeing the film version, except that it was one of those books Katie has read with her book club and, well, they aren’t usually the sorts of things I read. So I didn’t know that the author, Yann Martel, is a relatively young Canadian (relative to myself, that is) who lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Nor did I know that he had been accused of plagiarizing the idea of a boy shipwrecked with a jungle cat. In the 1980s, another author wrote a novella about the Holocaust in which a boy found himself alone in an open boat with a jaguar. Martel, when this was brought to his attention, seems to have waffled and prevaricated. He might just have laughed.

Those who have never tried to write a work of creative nonfiction—or just plain fiction—can carp at Yann Martel “stealing” someone else’s story. But then Shakespeare “stole.” It’s just about all he did. He stole this and that and the other thing and put them in the cement mixer of his creative imagination, and out came King Lear and Twelfth Night and Richard III. 

It’s the same thing each of us does in remembering the events of his life, the same thing Katie and I did, each in our own way, when we saw a movie that moved us.

God is the one creator. The rest of us plagiarize, or criticize the plagiarists.

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