Friday, November 30, 2012

The Round House

Speaking of Coming of Age stories (see end of previous post), Louise Erdrich’s recent National Book Award-winning The Round House certainly qualifies.

Young Joe is the son of a tribal judge on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.  His mother is raped and sinks into a deep depression. The 13-year-old is determined to solve the crime and heal his mother.  At first his father allows Joe to participate in the review of case records, looking for clues as to anyone who might want revenge on the judge.  As Joe, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of his friends, begins to investigate on his own, however, the judge becomes more circumspect.  He does allow Joe to sit in on attempts to interview his mother, and, after a few false starts, Joe eventually puts enough pieces together to identify the rapist.  The problem is that because of legal complications over who has jurisdiction over the crime, it is unlikely the white perpetrator will ever be prosecuted.  With that, Joe takes justice into his own hands, in an act that might be considered more one of revenge than justice.

His quest for justice is accompanied by the usual adolescent adventures with alcohol, sex, and even religion.  It is often hard to separate comedy from tragedy as the deadly serious detective work intersects with and gets sidetracked by youthful escapades and a tangled web of native and non-native relationships, some  of which help in solving the crime and some of which hilariously distract from it.  In the end, though, comedy gives way to tragedy and death.  Similarly, mainstream American culture blends with Native beliefs and practices, and both cultures contribute to Joe’s initiation into adulthood.

As in the typical Coming of Age story, Joe encounters, not only the evil in the world, but also the evil in himself, and one wonders at the end what direction he will take.  Will he come to terms with his experience, make peace with it, and develop into a healthy maturity?  Or will he be eaten up with disillusionment, distrust, and guilt?  Though we are told that Joe goes on to marry and graduate from law school, we don’t really get a good answer about his psychological health, although he is able to narrate the events of that traumatic summer with painful honesty (and perhaps we are to believe that in the fictional world the writing is therapeutic). 

At the end of the novel, Joe returns home with his parents, who “knew everything.” There were no tears, no anger, not even a word spoken “after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old.”  They pass the spot where on his “childhood trips” they had always stopped for ice cream.  This time they do not stop.  Childhood is over.  “We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.”  This does not sound like redemption; it sounds like living on in the wake of injustice and tragedy.

In Louise Erdrich’s Afterword to the novel, she cites a 2009 report by Amnesty International called “Maze of Injustice,” which documents the shocking statistics on the rapes of Native American women, most of which are perpetrated by non-Natives and very few of which are ever prosecuted, partly because of neglect and partly because of legal confusion, not to mention the ones that are never reported.  The statistics on vigilante justice, if any exist, are not mentioned.

It is ironic that Joe goes on to follow in his father’s footsteps in the legal profession.  Are we to hold out hope that he can play a role in righting some of the wrongs against his people by legal means?  Could that be the redemption for his illegal method of “righting the wrong” against his mother? Or is it merely an ironic extension of his life as a Native person trapped in a “maze of injustice,” even while working in the “justice” system?

To what extent is the novel an instance, an image, and an allegory of the plight of Native people, whose contemporary lives are a constant reenactment of their history, a history of oppression by white society, of victimization by a white legal system, and of entanglement in an elusive, often tragic, search for “justice”?



Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Pi

It has been years since I read this 2001 novel by Yann Martel, but the recent film seemed pretty close to my memory.  The movie left out the part about Pi, as a boy, reading manuals about how to train animals when his father owned a zoo, and I didn’t remember him being married (with children) in the book, but mostly the film fit with what I remembered.

I’ve seen it categorized as magical realism, which certainly fits, but it could also be read as traditional romantic fiction, in which an unreliable narrator tells a fantastic story, which, however incredible, embodies a powerful truth.  Even the alternative, more believable, version of the story qualifies as romance rather than realism, since it is, however credible, an amazing, extra-ordinary, improbable story in its own right. 

What is untraditional is the presentation of both stories, two different versions of the same events, one fantastic, one possible (if not probable) and the choice given to the reader to choose the better version, not only which is the better story but which is more truthful.  From a post-modern perspective, the novel presents the truth as rhetorical, rather than a matter of objective fact.  From a traditional perspective, it presents a modern version of Pascal’s wager, namely, since it is impossible to know objective truth, then bet on the one that is more imaginative and beautiful, however fantastic.  In religious terms, a world with supernatural possibilities is far preferable to a world of bare natural facts.

Another way of reading the two stories is in terms of allegory vs. realism, or internal vs. external.  One story offers an allegorical version of the internal, subjective experience, while the second story offers a “realistic” version of the external, factual experience.  In this case, both stories are equally true, one from a psychological perspective, the other from an empirically observable perspective.

To reverse the order of the stories in the novel, let’s begin with the more believable story.  After a shipwreck, the teenage Pi is trapped on a life boat with his mother, a sailor with a broken leg, and the ship’s cook.  The cook kills the sailor to use for fishing bait. When Pi’s mother objects, he threatens her and Pi.  She gets Pi to safety on a raft and is then killed by the cook.  Pi then kills the cook and, alone on the lifeboat, manages to survive until he makes landfall in Mexico.

Keep in mind that, from childhood, Pi has been a religious seeker.  Raised as a Hindu, he also follows Christianity and Islam.  Like a good Hindu, he is a vegetarian.  His father, lost in the shipwreck, was a rational, scientific man, who taught Pi the value of fact and logic.  His mother, on the other hand, believed that science could only tell you about external truth, not the truth of the human heart.  She supported Pi in his religious quest.

At the mercy of the elements and the competition for survival, Pi’s mother holds to her values, berating the cook for killing the sailor and sacrificing herself to save Pi.  Pi, however, puts his own survival first, killing the cook and becoming a carnivorous fish-eater in order to save himself.  When he tells this version of the story, he tearfully acknowledges his guilt and the “evil” within himself that made his survival possible.

In the allegorical version of the story, Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger.  The hyena kills the zebra and orangutan, and the tiger kills the hyena, leaving Pi to match his wits with the tiger’s natural predatory nature in order to survive.  Confronted with the parallels between the two stories, Pi admits that in the second version he is the tiger.  Allegorically, then, in the second version (the fantastical version that takes up the main body of the novel), the tiger represents the predator, the carnivore, and the will to survive within Pi, the religious vegetarian, who seeks to hold the tiger at bay, feeds it, keeps it alive, finally tames it, controls it, and ultimately befriends it.

 In one episode Pi and the tiger land on a mysterious island populated by meerkats for the tiger, vegetation for Pi, and fresh water for both.  At night, however, the island itself becomes carnivorous.  Pi and the meerkats survive by climbing into the trees; the tiger retreats to the lifeboat.  When Pi realizes the underlying predatory nature of the island, he takes the tiger and the lifeboat back out to sea.  This is the part I liked the least when I read the novel.  It seemed extraneous to the rest of the story and a step too far into fantasy, beyond improbable, into impossible.  When I saw the film, though, I realized the allegorical point, namely the duality of nature, which gives life by day, and takes it by night. 

Similarly, the tiger, which threatens Pi’s life, also gives Pi a sense of purpose which aids in his survival.  And Pi himself, the religious vegetarian, harbors within himself the predatory carnivore.  Human nature itself, like the island, is capable of both life-giving power and death-dealing force. Like Pi and his mother, we are capable of moral values and of religious yearning for higher life, and, like Pi and the tiger, we are capable of feeding off of other lives for our own survival.  Pi is able to survive by taming and befriending the tiger, not by denying it.  He imagines the soul of the tiger, the spiritual power behind it.

When they make landfall in Mexico, Pi is deeply disappointed and hurt when the tiger disappears into the jungle without a backward look.  Once in civilization, he can return to his vegetarianism, his moral values, and his religious quest, but not without a sense of loss in the accompanying alienation from his natural self.

Which story do you prefer?  But why choose?  Together they tell the human story in greater depth, breadth, and nuance than either one alone, just as Pi’s father’s scientific world view and his mother’s religious sensibility together offer a more complete vision of truth than either one alone.

In the traditional “coming of age” story, a youth begins in innocence, comes to experience the evil in the world, including the evil within, and then must decide how to come to terms with that discovery.  One can make one’s peace with it and advance into healthy maturity, or one can become stuck in disillusionment, bitterness, and cynicism.  Life of Pi follows that pattern.  Pi can become stuck in the “realistic” version of his story, living out a life of guilt and self-loathing, or he can make peace with his own human nature through imaginative yearning and go on to live out his aspirations for higher life.

There is herein a lesson for all of us:  Know the “evil” within yourself; do not submit to it, but recognize it, respect its power, tame it, control it and befriend it.  Know that you could not survive without it.