Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Who is really at sea, the character or the reader?

kw: book reviews, fiction, novels, animals, shipwrecks, mysticism

A friend gave me a paperback copy of Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This may be the most difficult book to review that I've encountered. It is described by the author in his introduction as a story to "make you believe in God." I would say, for anyone who thinks belief in God is a possible thing, it will make that possibility inevitable, and for anyone who thinks belief in God is either impossible or wrong, it will confirm that impossibility.

Near the end of the Revelation given to John, the last book in the New Testament, the angel's final words to John are:
Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy. (Rev 22:10b-11, NIV)
Earlier in the vision another angel had said, "There will be no more delay" (10:6), which the King James Version renders, "There will be time no longer." Together these passages show that once the end times truly arrive, it is too late to repent. Of course, the vile and the wrongdoers believe in neither end times nor in repentance.

Young Pi, the nickname for Piscine (French for swimming pool), leaves nothing to chance. Having an open heart and a keen desire to know God, he has accepted and diligently practices Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. During the major section of the book, which tells the story of his nine months at sea in a lifeboat in the company of a tiger, Pi credits his triple faith for his survival.

The core idea of the story is ambiguity, even irrationality. But "irrational" has two meanings. As a schoolboy, Piscine Molitor Patel, tired of hearing his name mispronounced as "pissing", begins a new school year by insisting that he is to be called Pi, writing on the blackboard of every classroom, "Pi ≈ 3.14". Pi (shown in formulas as π) is the most irrational of the so-called irrational numbers; they are those quantities that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers. In fact, π is the leading member of a special class of irrational numbers called "transcendental numbers", because they are not the result of any simple operations but themselves form the basis for operations: they are sources, not productions. They transcend algebra.

The first number proven to be irrational is the square root of 2, shown as √2. It is the first member of the other class of irrational numbers, the algebraic numbers. Algebraic and Transcendental: these are the two kinds of irrational numbers. And the other meaning of "irrational"? A sort of synonym, even an evil twin, of "illogical".

The transcendental numbers intrigue me. Though few are known, they seem to outnumber all other kinds of numbers. And so I recall Isaiah 45:15, "You are a God who has been hiding Himself." As metaphors, they are even more fascinating, because "transcendental" is a kind of good-angel twin of "divine". If in reading Life of Pi we believe his story throughout (at least, prior to the second half of Chapter 99), he becomes a kind of god to us. Or, at least, an avatar leading us to God. Mr. Pi Patel becomes transcendental. If, instead, we believe the second half of that chapter, seemingly fabricated on the spot to satisfy overly-rational shipping-disaster investigators, we fall from heaven to earth.

Perhaps this story cannot make absolutely everyone believe in God. But it makes a reader clear that the choice of heaven or hell is ours to make, and we will surely attain our choice.

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