fiction, review

Dear Life

41117546631_28ca98d1c7Here Alice Munro provides readers with bitter insight into what a real life might become when it treads along a twisted road toward somewhere unknown, or, rather, unpredicted. Dear Life has fourteen short stories people might just expect from the Nobel laureate, but they will have to be ready for more than that. For they might encounter characters they will hate so much, or ones they will hate so much to love, and unsettling narratives they will want to scream at, but which they think possible and not gruelingly unusual.

Of all the short written accounts, the last four are said to be Munro’s fictionalized versions of her childhood memories. Despite this, the other ten are not necessarily deprived of the familiar setting I’m sure is Munro’s own surroundings through her lifetime. So however fictitious those ten stories are, there is still something personal about the writer in each of them, something that we can draw some conclusions from about what life she’s lived in some ways. There’s more to them, though, than merely personal hints on what actually formed her narratives. There is the characters, ones that are often sketches of infidel people as in To Reach Japan, Leaving Maverly, Gravel, and Carrie. But they are not such bad people, nor does Munro try to depict them so. They are people who cannot help what they do, or who just follow where the road takes them to. Sometimes it’s the road they wish to travel, sometimes it’s doubtfully not.

Speaking of taking the road in front, Train is the most gripping tale of all for its character’s indecisiveness—if it could even be called indecisiveness. Jackson, a young soldier coming back from the war, only goes with the flow, going where the wind and the railroad take him. He doesn’t plan his life, nor does he decide anything to do, he lets his path and any circumstance prevailing decide it for him. When he stops at a ranch on the way home, he never knows that being agitated by a restless cow will lead him to so many years of life there, at first doing some repair work for the ranch owner and then for her neighbors, and later living with and caring for her as her friend and family. He doesn’t intend to do so, nor does he intend to do so forever, for when there is a hint of it ending sooner rather than later, he takes a turn and nips it in the bud. Later on, he even takes a more twisted path as he almost encounters his past girlfriend, if we could call her so, for he doesn’t want to face his awkward past, or perhaps he just doesn’t want to face the fact that their relationship is more complicated than he wants it to be.

Pride is another compelling story, especially for its physically and psychologically imperfect character. “Imperfect” may be a simple, negative word, but it can always strike your pride and makes you want to cast out people around because their existence and help will only make you feel like an incapable person unfit for anything and even for being independent. It is, more or less, what Munro seems to project the main character to be, for it is what the reader gets from his nature, from the way he behaves and thinks. He lives alone with his mother, as Oneida, one of his townspeople he’s quite acquainted with, does with her father. When the man falls sick, Oneida takes care of him, whether he wants her to or not. As he gradually recovers, however, things get awkward for he doesn’t wish to get anymore of her helping hand, especially when she offers to live with him in his empty house now that his mother has passed away. He refuses it, he rejects it, for pride or anything else that prevents him from feeling pity for himself. But then he realizes that it is Oneida who deserves pity more.

Closely scrutinized, with Dear Life Alice Munro seems to want to hold a mild, subtle and yet firm rebellion against the society, religion, even against fate that has its title to mold and direct what lives people should live. The narratives she presents to readers suggest that they are somewhat stirred by characters unwilling to comply with any rules but their own, even creating no path but their own. They seem so unbounded, unrestrained like those in the last four stories (The Eye, Night, Voices, and Dear Life), where she, to some extent, describes herself as a rebellion who cannot just say yes to her mother’s orders. This notion seems affirmed when in the story Haven Munro ironically tells about a man called Uncle Jasper who cannot live without confirming to his religion’s strict rules and customs. He is so adamant that his own sister only gets his cold shoulder, even until to her grave, and his wife can only be the “yessir” robot for she fears he might treat her the same way or explode unreasonably. If this is not a criticism of common radical obedience, I don’t know what.

Alice Munro doesn’t try to be smart in her use of language or style, she appears to be modest at most: simple, humble, to the point, though she is at the same time not deterred from complicating the plots and/or obscuring the storylines, like those of Leaving Maverly, Train, and Pride. She cleverly manages to trick readers into believing in her simplicity and text readability while the context of each fictional narrative is so much more than that. Zooming them in, however, those stories are most likely not made up of events with any chronological orders, but rather of the complicatedness of the characters inhabiting their realms. It is those characters who drive the plot motors, it is them who create such complexity which leads to secret love affairs, troubled childhood, lost, suspicion that at the end the reader comes to a feeling of bitterness. Or probably they come to no end at all, for our dear life is so full of mystery.

Like it or not, Dear Life is a book that somehow, inexpicably, can make readers rather feel bad at the end, and yet it has the beauty that not many stories have. The impression it makes on the reader is then generally as complicated as its own contents.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, memoir, review

Life of Pi

Indonesian edition’s cover

Do you believe in God? Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has the answer to it. Or so I think. Without being dogmatic, it talks about having faith in God and what God can give you, indistinctly, in return. Life of Pi is not a boring, complicated drama about having to be stern and strict in practicing our religious teaching. Instead, it’s a demystified way of telling us about how we should be holding our faith firmly in the teeth of extreme, near-to-death difficulties. First published in 2001, Life of Pi has been Martel’s most phenomenal novel and most widely embraced story. And what the novel has tells us that it deserves it.

Set in India, the writer delivers a story of a boy to start with, named Piscine Molitor Patel after the best swimming pool in France which is always alive in his father’s friend’s memory. While having to deal with his friends making fun of his weird, unusual name, Pi finds himself indeliberately dragged into a vacillating state of faith, trying to discover the existence of God in every religion he knows, Hinduism, Islam, and Christian. Each passing day witnesses his growing determination to embrace the three religions all at the same time, which eventually takes form.

Later, the political conditions in India around 1970s forces Pi’s father to make up his mind and take all his family out of the motherland. Bound for Canada, they close their zoo and bring with them some of the animals meant to be sold in America. But without luck on their side, the ship they are on suddenly sinks for reasons unknown on July 2, 1977. No one survives but Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan, and a Bengal tiger. It’s not only hunger and the sea he has to survive, but also those wild, man-eater animals whose hunger is so much worse and consuming than his. At this very point, Pi realizes that believing in God and resignation take a lot more sacrifices than he’s sometimes capable of making, yet earn him his whole life.

The reader may regard Pi as a confused, wavering, uncertain adherent of any religions, for he chooses to embrace three beliefs with three, or more, different Gods to worship. This portrayal of a character may get chided by some of you, but as I see it, Pi is just someone who tries to be open to any religion so long as it ushers him to the grace of God. For him, faith is faith, and you cannot limit it with any kinds of teaching. It is God he is seeking for, not acceptance into any particular group. He is just a boy with thousands of questions in his mind, no doubt about it, but he is certain about what he holds and believes, that God can take any form in this universe.

Despite its sequence of adventurous events, Life of Pi is not exactly an adventure story. It’s an exciting experience of a person who has to hold on his faith steadfastly to undergo it. Its plot has successfully drowned me into its thrilling narrative surrounded by the sea. The characterization is just believable and natural yet controversial, without demanding approval from the reader. Its hilarious tone makes it enjoyable to follow till the last page, although the character is described going through such a hardship. Nevertheless, the story itself, though enchanting and inspirational, as well as the character’s own confession leave some questions unanswered. Is it really his personal experience, or merely a fictional tale he had woven on his own even before the writer came to him? If it is real, is it really how the story goes? Can you really escape a starving tiger for 227 days without being any the worse for wear? Sadly, those intriguing questions are only for us to wonder on end.

Be that as it may, I love this book. Life of Pi is not only entertaining and mind-opening, it’s stating an opinion about having faith in God without being dogmatic and strict, without any intention of “teaching” and forcing the reader to follow any belief. It’s magnetic and everything I want (and need) in a novel. Fictional or not, I don’t really care. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

Rating: 4/5