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Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

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“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
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Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com

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Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel

Review 28: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man


Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

This book probably would have enraged me if I hadn’t already more or less known what it was talking about. As it was, I was resigned and depressed.

The book is a short autobiography of an Economic Hit Man (EHM) who saw the error of his ways. The idea of the EHM, as he describes it, is to manipulate the governments of developing nations to accept huge loans from the IMF and the World Bank based on inflated projections of future income, under the theory that they would experience huge economic gains from the projects – things like electrical grid upgrades, roads, dams and the like. These nations would then become indebted to the United States and forced to give business to US corporations, thereby effectively putting that nation under US control. He calls it the Corporatocracy, and he was a part of it. He traveled around the world to manipulate cash-strapped world leaders into signing their nations over to the control of US corporate interests.

He describes himself as one of the earliest generations of EHM, the ones who knew exactly what they were doing. Perkins describes his entry and rise in the EHM world as a series of decisions inspired by coincidences, at least at first. His childhood was marked by clear class differences, growing up in a small New England town and going to school with the children of the super-rich. His family taught at the school, thus gaining him both entry into classes and a raging feeling of inferiority and anger.

After doing a stint in the Peace Corps, he was approached to work for the NSA. Following the NSA screening, he was tapped to work for MAIN, an engineering company who, in the 60s and 70s, was at the forefront of modernizing developing nations. At their expense, of course.

When Perkins was initiated into this world of money and power, he was explicitly aware of what he was doing: he would vastly overstate the economic potential of, say, a hydroelectric dam project, leading to the leaders of governments such as the Philippines, Columbia and Venezuela taking out massive loans based on expected future returns. When those returns didn’t come in – and they never did – they were forced to make concessions, which always, always benefited the interests of MAIN and other US corporations. By doing so, they became part of the American Economic Empire, without one politician ever laying a finger on it.

It’s considered the softest method of empire-building. Take a country that needs money to help its people, and arrange so that the government has to spend upwards of 50% of its GNP repaying loans. The people get nothing, a few rich leaders become richer, and US corporations spread further out into the world. All forwarding the cause of US economic interests. For Americans, it means cheaper gas, food and raw materials. For the corporations involved, it means higher and higher profits. For the people of the developing countries targeted, it means poverty and disenfranchisement.

The EHMs don’t always succeed, though – remember Panama? We had the canal, and made lots of money off it. Until the leader of Panama, in the 70’s, decided to take it back. Omar Torrijos was that rare breed of third world ruler who honestly wanted to help his people, and he knew that the best way to do that was to re-assert control over the Panama Canal. He knew what the EHMs were up to, and wouldn’t have any part of it. In his recollections of their meetings, Perkins sees him as the kind of leader every country should have, and it was his example that led him towards leaving this world. His example and, of course, his death.

When the EHMs fail, the jackals come in and people start dying in “mysterious” plane crashes. Torrijos was replaced by Manuel Noriega, who was in our pocket, but not quite far enough. He didn’t toe the line that Washington wanted, so we made him up to be the Hitler of South America, invaded Panama without cause (see, Iraq is not a new thing) and took him back to the US. The result? The canal is effectively back under US control, and any advances that Torrijos might have made are gone.

One of the reasons Perkins left the industry and wrote this book is because he’s worried about the future of the EHM. Not that it’s fading, but that it’s getting stronger. With the ever-increasing pace of globalization, governments are jockeying with corporations for power around the world, and the EHMs are coming with them. But the new breed is different. The people following in Perkins’ footsteps honestly believe that they are trying to help these beleagured countries They see themselves as part of a great march towards progress, never really noticing that the progress only really benefits them.

One thing I noticed about this book. While I don’t doubt Perkins’ honesty and intentions in writing this book, I do wonder how much of the “torn between two worlds” persona he adopts is honest. Throughout the book, he talks about his moments of indecision, of inner conflict as he tries to justify the things he’s doing. He talks about meeting dissidents in Iran, going to anti-American puppet shows in Bali, encountering supercilious Canal Zone residents in Panama, all of which serves to make him look like he’s much more thoughtful than the average corporate warrior.

Perhaps he’s representing himself sincerely as a person caught between his moral code and his pride. He did, after all, leave the business – and the vast amount of money and power that it offered him. But I kept thinking, how much of that conflicted feeling was real, and how much was remembered? It’s a small point, but one that kept nagging at me. It doesn’t add to or detract from his argument, however.

This is not a happy book, and it’s pretty likely to piss you off. It’s not about the US government, mind you – it’s about US corporations assisting the government in its imperial ambitions. It’s about the marriage of economics and governance and its dark, dark offspring….

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“Confessing a sin is the beginning of redemption.”
-John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on Wikipedia
John Perkins on Wikipedia
John Perkins’ website
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on Amazon.com

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Filed under economics, ethics, history, John Perkins, memoir, nonfiction, politics

Review 25: Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

This book puts me in mind of the time my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to go to my mother’s house in the Poconos during spring break.

It was back in the late nineteen-hundreds, and we were a college cadre of Dungeons & Dragons players who had a great campaign going. “Spontaneous Combustion” we called ourselves, because of our habit of blowing things up at any opportunity. Not a weekend would go by that we didn’t burn, destroy, incinerate or otherwise defile something in our imaginary world. But we were exhausted from the rigors of trying to balance our school life with our raping and pillaging. I say “raping” because it really belongs there with “pillaging,” though to my knowledge there was no raping of anyone. Dismemberment, yes, and I believe my character managed to give a lot of people syphilis, but in a rather unconventional way.

The plan was simple: we’d all go down to the house in the mountains for a few days, have marathon D&D sessions, and generally enjoy each others’ company in quiet isolation from the world. The house was an idyllic place – all trees and silence and snow, with the occasional deer or wild turkey. It would be a truly beautiful and serene place for us to rest our wearied bodies and stretch our wild imaginations.

So, much like Jerome K. Jerome and his companions, Harris, George and, of course, Montmorency, who decide in this book that the best tonic for their youthful ennui would be a boating trip up the Thames, we all headed to the mountains of Pennsylvania to soothe our troubled souls and to bond as friends and boon companions.

Also like Jerome, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency), we had no idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

The three men (and the dog) of Jerome K. Jerome’s story are like most travelers throughout time since the idea of traveling for leisure was invented: they have a Plan. The Plan, of course, is to have a good time with one’s friends while avoiding anything resembling work. Unfortunately, the world will often have other plans. In the case of this book, those plans involved angry swans, annoying lovers, unusually busy inns, bad weather and general vehicular mishaps.

Now that I think on it, though, the trouble they had with their boat – and there was trouble – wasn’t quite as bad as the trouble I had with my car on our way to the role-playing retreat. Thanks to a strategically placed pothole, I managed to blow out both passenger side tires on my car. Not all at once, though. The rear one went flat right away, causing the small caravan to stop on the side of a New Scotland road while I panicked and my friend Jon fixed the tire. I would have done it myself, of course, but this was the first Misfortune to befall my beloved car – whose name, for reasons too complicated to go into here, was Phoenix – so it fell to Jon to do it. The rest of our crew were milling about patiently, except for Jim, who was lighting road flares so that anyone who happened to be driving down the sunlit, arrow-straight, bone-dry stretch of road might not kill us all.

The second flat tire occurred in a small town, the name of which I have forgotten. Or blocked out. There had been a slow leak, and I was on my way out of the liquor store (we had to buy liquor, there was no question of that, though whose idea it was to buy the Jeroboam of red wine escapes me) and Jon says, “Don’t get angry.”

“Why would I get angry, Jon?” I replied, doing a passable imitation of HAL from 2001.

It turned out that the other passenger side tire had gone flat while we were shopping. This left us in a small town on the outskirts of Nowhere, at 8 PM on a Friday night in need of a tire. By some miracle, the AAA man we called knew someone who could sell us a tire so we could get on our way. The man, who turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein, was happy to sell it to us, though he wouldn’t actually put it on the car. Possibly because he wanted to save us money by not charging us for the labor, or possibly because my car – adorned with a variety of bumper-stickers and interesting rear-view amulets – looked like it belonged to an angry gay druid. Whatever his reasons, we got a new tire on the car and were grateful for his help.

In discussing any trip, of course, one must eventually come to the weather. For Jerome and his friends it was the rain that defied their best efforts to stay dry and forced them to find lodgings in towns where places to sleep were already scarce. For us, it was snow.

Snow is common in the mountains through early spring, but we were prepared for that. Mom had called the plow service and assured us that the driveway would be clear when we got there. When we arrived (having first worked out the Problem of the Mismarked Map), we found that the driveway had not, in fact, been plowed and the snow came up to mid-thigh. We parked on the street, slogged through the snow and went to open the door. When the key wouldn’t turn on the second lock, I pretty much gave up and just wandered around the snow saying, “She only gave me one key,” over and over again until someone managed to get the door open. After about twelve hours of cataclysmic travel, we were There. We had arrived! Our objective was obtained and our journey was done! We could finally unwind and relax.

One of the difficulties that we shared with Jerome and company was with food. They packed well enough, of course, with all kinds of comestibles, but like all people who are not used to preparing and procuring their own food, the comedy that resulted was plentiful. Beef without mustard, infinitely peelable potatoes, strange and unfathomable stews – any traveler who goes on a journey without having some kind of food misadventure has missed half the fun.

For us, it was steak. Get a group of men together and their appetites will turn to meat. Oh sure, there might be a few green, hippie, godless Commie men out there who lean towards tofu, but they’re really thinking of meat, no matter what they say.

We had bought some steaks – the best our college-student budgets could handle. But how to cook them? For in every group of meat-loving men, everyone is a meat expert. It’s a mark of True Masculinity, the ability to cook a steak, and the insinuation that one cannot cook a steak is tantamount to calling the man a queer sissy fairy-boy.

What resulted from this battle of culinary wills was a dinner that consisted, mainly, of shoe leather, with everyone holding grudges against everyone else for Not Doing It Right. This was about the same time I learned firsthand why one should never chug blackberry brandy.

The myriad of problems that people have when traveling are, unfortunately, universal. Poor planning, bad luck, nasty locals, bad weather, pigheadedness and the unfortunate tendency of the world not to live up to our expectations of it – all of these conspire to make travel an endurance trial. What surprised me the most about this book was how similar Jerome K. Jerome’s troubles had been to my own.

As bad as things can be at the time, though, there comes a time, afterward, when you can look back and laugh. Safe at home, Jerome took his eventful, awful trip up the Thames and made it into an incredibly funny classic of English literature. The fact that the book is over a hundred years old doesn’t take away at all from its comedy value because the humor comes from the universal nature of travelers and traveling. We all go on our journeys hoping for a relaxed, congenial time, but we tell stories about the mishaps, misadventures and difficulties. They are, paradoxically, the most fun part of the trip.

So I laughed along with Jerome and his friends, remembering all the while the infighting, bad food, bad moods, burnt countertops, spiked spaghetti sauce and everything else that made that one Spring Break trip so terribly, terribly memorable.

Although, all things being equal, I would have been just as happy if we’d had… y’know, a good time.

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“They cursed us – not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations and covered everything connected with us – good, substantial curses.”
– Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
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Three Men in a Boat at Wikipedia
Jerome K. Jerome at Wikipedia
Three Men in a Boat at Amazon.com
Three Men in a Boat at Wikisource

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Filed under classics, England, friendship, humor, Jerome K. Jerome, memoir, travel

Review 15: Confessions of a Mask


Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

From what I can tell, Yukio Mishima was not a very happy man.

Granted, the only works that I have read of this very prolific author are this and Kinkakuji, but I’m seeing a pattern already, and it doesn’t point towards Mishima being a cheerful, laid-back guy. Of course, his suicide by seppuku is also a good indicator that he took things way too seriously.

Published in 1948, Confessions of a Mask addresses a subject that would have been taboo anywhere, not just Japan. The main character, whose name is only given as Kochan, is a young man dealing with the fact that he is homosexual. He begins with one of his earliest memories, seeing a night-soil man and finding him beautiful, which he believes is what set his preferences for life. As he gets older, he doesn’t yet realize that he’s different from other boys, except in that he’s small and thin and gets sick a lot more often. He finds himself entranced by men, especially laborers, and not knowing if this is what he’s supposed to be feeling.

His sexual maturity is a sad and stunted thing. The pleasure and rapture that he sees in paintings of St. Sebastian hide dark urges of violence and despair. His boyhood love of a classmate is a secret that gnaws at him until he finally convinces himself that he was never actually in love at all. And his attempts to become “normal” end with nothing by emptiness and sorrow. Kochan has no friends to talk to, no family to lean on, and no way to know if what he’s feeling is good or bad. All he knows is that the other boys are fascinated by women, and he’s fascinated by other boys. In darkness and isolation, Kochan grows. What he grows into, however, is a pale, lonely and barren man.

Like many gay kids, especially in the pre-internet era, Kochan believes that he is unique. An aberration, a deviation from the norm. As far as he knows, no other boy has felt the way he did, and the only other one he hears of – Oscar Wilde – is long dead. His desire to fit in with the rest of the world leads him to play an elaborate game, to wear a mask so convincing that it nearly convinces himself. Being able to hide who he really is and what he really wants becomes a matter of hiding from himself. And as anyone who’s tried that will know, hiding from yourself only works for so long….

Such is the life of a young gay man in wartime Japan. While I’m sure what Mishima has presented here is not the average, it is a depressing picture of what it’s like to live in a society where such a deviation from the norm is punishable by societal exile. While I can’t claim to know what would have happened to a young man in that era who came out of the closet, the narrator doesn’t even seem to consider that as an option, good or bad. Thus I can only assume that the consequences would be dire.

There’s no doubt that this book is at least semi-autobiographical. A look at Mishima’s life shows a number of parallels, especially in the early days. Both he and Kochan were raised by grandparents and separated from their families. Mishima stared writing as a boy, an activity that his father deplored and which earned him beatings by other students in school. He knew what it was like to be different, and that probably fed into this novel.

Whether or not Mishima was actually gay is, it seems, debatable. He did marry, and had two children, which would seem to indicate against it, but if, like the character in this book, he fought against his own nature, such an arrangement could be understandable.

One of the things that I found difficult about this book – and Kinkakuji – was how very introspective it was. The narrator tells the story of his life from his older point of view, and dissects every thought and every memory in exacting detail. It creates a picture of a person who lives entirely in his own head, and attributes modes of thinking that one wouldn’t normally associate with, say, a twelve-year old. He appears to be very analytical, even from his earliest days. Though he tells us that he is not letting his adult mind get in the way of his memories of childhood, this great attention to detail proves him wrong.

The depiction of Kochan’s attempts to hide himself is yet another mask – the mask of purposefulness. The narrator would like us to believe that he made every decision with purpose, as part of a plan. That he really did choose this life of self-deception. Perhaps because the idea that all of this was beyond his control is just too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps because it is better to own a bad decision than to admit that it was an accident. The narrator shows us quite clearly how adept he is at hiding from himself, and so he cannot be trusted to tell us truthfully about how he thought when he was a young man.

This makes reading the book a challenge – the reader must evaluate every statement and judge every event for its possible veracity. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much is true and how much is falsehood. In the end, we just have to take Kochan at his word, all the while accepting that he’s probably lying – and doing it without being aware of what he’s doing.

Reading Confessions of a Mask today, sixty years after it was first published, is illuminating. In the US, we’re involved in a great societal discussion over whether or not gays should get married, and while being homosexual certainly isn’t something that is universally accepted, the prospects for young gays and lesbians in the modern age are much better than they would have been for someone coming of age in the 1940s. Even in Japan, where coming out to one’s family is still as hard as it ever was, there are gays and lesbians on television and the matter is open to discussion. A homosexual in Japan may not be as willing to kick down the closet door as his or her American counterparts, but the abject horror of being utterly rejected by society is probably much less than it was.

When you consider what happens in this book, the horrible mental contortions that the main character must make in order to hide his true nature from the world – and himself – you can appreciate how far we’ve come.

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“I had long since insisted upon interpreting the things that Fate forced me to do as victories of my own will and intelligence, and now this bad habit had grown into a sort of frenzied arrogance. In the nature of what I was calling my intelligence there was a touch of something illegitimate, a touch of the sham pretender who has been placed on the throne by some freak chance. This dolt of a usurper could not foresee the revenge that would inevitably be wreaked upon his stupid despotism.”
-Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
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Yukio Mishima at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Amazon.com
Homosexuality in Japan at Wikipedia

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Filed under coming of age, homosexuality, Japan, memoir, morality, sexuality, Yukio Mishima