Life of PiLife of Pi
by Yann Martel

This was the last selection for Amanda’s Book Club. I think that lent an atmosphere of reflective sadness to the reading that may or may not have been in the book itself. It was one of the more interesting books we’ve chosen to read, and I kept finding things that made me look forward to talking about it, wondering what Amanda or Diane or Ann would think of this or that. Then I’d remember that we still didn’t have a scheduled date for our next meeting, and another meeting was becoming more and more unlikely. For the past two years, I’ve grown to really look forward to each meeting, to seeing Amanda and some of the others, and to having conversations with them about what we’ve been reading since we last met.

Last year, we read The Lifeboat, and here’s another book set in a lifeboat. Two stories about trying to stay alive, about clinging to each day and each object and each incident as though it might be the last. But in Life of Pi, I met a narrator who was reflecting on what had happened with a searching honesty, struggling to make sense of what had happened, while in The Lifeboat, the narrator’s professions of candor seemed like surface dressing on a firmly closed door.

What will other people think of our stories? Do we care what they think so much that we become crafty in the telling? At the end of this book, Pi is challenged by two listeners who refuse to accept the story he has given them. He makes up a different story, one that satisfies their disbelief. But unlike the narrator in The Lifeboat, who seemed to be reshaping her own memories even as she reshaped her words, I never sense that Pi himself believes the revised story. He holds to the truth of what happened to him, not just what happened in the lifeboat, but what happened in his heart and mind and soul. Nobody knows my true story but myself and God. I can only tell it as straight as I know how.

In the first year of Amanda’s bookclub, we read One Amazing Thing, another book that came to mind as I read this. The characters in that book wait for rescue or death as they recall the “one amazing thing” that ever happened to them. Each character tries to put this one amazing thing into words, to make it into a story that can be shared with other people. The true importance of each event, though, is so deeply personal to the storyteller that outsiders can only grasp dimly at a reflection of it. Sometimes, there’s a connection between the teller and the listener, and one person seizes another’s story with a sense of familiarity. “Yes, I understand! I’ve been there, or somewhere similar!”

We need to tell stories, because that’s the only way we can break out of ourselves and touch each other. But at the same time, we realize that only God knows what we’re struggling to express. When someone else’s story “works” for me, it’s because it reaches some similar experience in myself. When someone else’s story doesn’t work for me, do I reject it as impossible? Or do I admit humbly that we’re all in that same boat?

Book club wasn’t just about being all schoolish and analyzing and criticizing. It was deeper than that. It was about sharing our stories. The stories offered to us by the books were connectors, stories to which our own might be joined. By all of us listening to the same book-story, we found that we were also listening to each other’s stories.