I simply had no idea what to expect from The Life of Pi. Over the past years several people have told me they liked the book and they thought I would too. I know the story took shape for the big screen several years ago and received positive review. But I guess I never really read any of those reviews and I didn’t see the movie. So when I came to the final moments of the book last week, I was surprised.
I enjoyed my hours listening to this somewhat odd story of shipwreck survival and I didn’t anticipate the ending. It was a story within a story, the larger frame claimed to have a story to tell that “would make you believe in God.” The embedded story turned out to be a fantastical story of survival told by the boy Pi, floating 227 days adrift in the ocean on a lifeboat with a tiger. In the last pages of the story the two wash ashore in Mexico, the tiger walks off into the jungle and the boy recovers in a hospital. Two Japanese Transport Officials come to interview the boy about the shipwreck as they try to identify the cause of the shipwreck. Pi tells them a story built with a tiger, a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and an island of meerkats. The officials immediately reject this story and push back for a story they can believe. Pi begins again, this time telling a harrowing tale of survival with brutal details about the deaths of his shipwrecked companions: his mother, the cook, and a sailor. No zoo animals in the second story. The officials spend a moment matching the animals from the first story in symbolic relation to the shipwrecked companions in the horrific second story and are satisfied that the second story must indeed be the true story. Pi confronts their conclusion: “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” They choose the story with with animals. Pi responds, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
Aack! So much here to set my mind spinning. I was simply caught off guard. I never expected to hear a second version of Pi’s survival story. A second version drastically different from the first. And yet perhaps not.
In another case of Jennifer comes late to the party, I finally started listening to Serial last week. “Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, and is hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial tells one story – a true story – over the course of an entire season. Each season, we’ll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won’t know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we bring you the next chapter in the story, so it’s important to listen to the episodes in order, starting with Episode 1.” Late worked to my advantage. I didn’t have to wait. I listened to the entire 12 episode season in just over 24 hours.
Season One examined the 1999 murder of a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland. “Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.” The series of podcasts included many current interviews with main players in the story as well as taped trial testimony and police interrogations as the case unfolded in 1999. As the host and executive producer of the podcast, Sarah Koenig, reviewed and presented the case she realized “….that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of?”
I found this series of podcasts a captivating experience with the complexities and power of story. In the second episode Koenig said, “All this information. Every scrap. It’s currency for whatever side you’re on. It’s spin. And the trouble with spin is that you can’t totally disregard it because swirling around somewhere inside some tendril inside is true.” It appears Adnan’s going to get another chance to Spin his Story. News broke over the weekend: he’s been granted an appeal.
How do we assign meaning to story? How does story illuminate the truth? How does truth differ from facts?