The Battle for Survival continues! Both of these titles deal with the fragility and strength of the human spirit as against overwhelming odds, two souls struggle to improve their circumstances. Both stories are handled in new and interesting ways. One book I should have liked but didn’t engage with the character. The other, I didn’t expect to like but I found fascinating despite my general antipathy towards literary fiction.
What would you do if you had your life to live over and over again? The first scene of this book instantly grabbed me with the potential of a woman poised to kill Hitler (I know, right!?). She immediately dies in the attempt, then goes back to square one, her birth. Unfortunately, the momentum of this moment is completely lost as we relive her birth and early childhood over and over and over and over and over again for 100 pages. I can see the value of this succession of lives to demonstrate the fragility of life and the minute changes that can happen and which have a big impact on a person’s life, but it effectively killed the thrust of the narrative for me. Thankfully, she finally reaches adulthood and the pacing quickens.
As the novel progresses, she becomes aware that she has lived through these moments before and there may be a purpose to these strange repetitions. Her brother dies in the war and she works to try and save him by various means (including killing Hitler). She must survive the endless cycle of birth and re-birth trying to reach her goals as she discovers the optimal combination of life events that will lead to the right opportunities and success. Again, because we spent so much time repeating the events of her early life, I felt like I never really got a sense of who Ursula is; for much of the story, she is not an active participant in her life and it was hard to find a reason to care about what happens to her. The ending seems to imply that there is no end to the cycle as she is about to launch into another birth, leaving me to wonder if she would ever achieve her goal. However, I could appreciate that the author was trying to do something different.
The conceit of this book is that the author is retelling a true story of how a young man survived for over two hundred days in a lifeboat with wild animals he heard while in India. It is difficult to believe that a person could survive a seemingly impossible situation like this. Pi (as in 3.124..) is traveling with his family and some of the animals from their zoo when their ship sinks in a storm. I had never had any inclination to either read the book or see the movie because I didn’t think the story was for me. However, I can see why this book was made into a movie; some of the scenes are very cinematic, like the flying fish. And to my surprise, there were even some humorous bits and some interesting insights into the animal mind.
A great deal of time is spent in setting up Pi’s life, from his zoo education, to the choosing of his name, to his interest in each of the world religions. I admit, I scanned through much of this because I just wanted to get to the meat of the story. But it does serve to show the tools he is able to apply in his survival. Pi believes that he will be killed by the tiger before he starves; a reasonable thought. He ultimately decides that their fate lies together and sets about trying to tame him instead or at least to come to some kind of tacit agreement of their existence. After several months of hardship when his food and water runs out, Pi begins to show signs of physical and mental strain; not surprising under the circumstances. The story seems to similarly devolve at this point as well. I had to re-read some sections two or three times, trying to decipher what was happening.
What more can I say about this book without spoiling it? Those who have read the book or seen the movie know what I am talking about. I found myself feeling both devastated and unsure of what to make of it all by the end of the book. The author leaves it to the other characters and the reader to decide what may be the truth of what happened on that lifeboat. To borrow from Pi’s phrasing, “I like the story about the animals better.”
Many people praise these books for the philosophical themes and literary explorations, but when a book touts such BIG IDEAS as these, the intent of the message usually overwhelms the narrative for me. I have tried the literary genre before but when I inevitably don’t become transcendant with all of the higher thoughts I am supposed to be thinking, I feel like I have failed as a reader in my comprehension. I am a reasonably intelligent person, but when I am reading, I want to be enjoying the story and characters and come to think about higher thoughts after the fact. The idea for Life After Life is fantastic, but the execution did not deliver on what I was expecting and I did not engage with the character and her story. Ultimately, Life of Pi was able to transcend the weight of its genre and keep me guessing.
The winner is Life of Pi.