Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Life of Pi as Postmodern Survivor Narrative

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Life of Pi as Postmodern Survivor Narrative

Article excerpt

In addition to lending shape to historical events, natural disasters, and individual trauma, survivor narratives invite contemplation of the aesthetics of memory, the construction of selfhood, and cultural representation. These stories, which present the experience of an individual facing death or a trauma that severely disrupts the sense of selfhood, serve as popular entertainment on television talk shows and in women's magazines. The New York Times also offers its more literate readership dramatic personal profiles to reveal the intimacy and scope of crisis, from 9/11 to the South Asian tsunamis to sexual abuse. A number of academic disciplines, including literary and cultural studies, psychology, sociology, and the fine arts, have theorized trauma and the possibility of its representation. Recently, these intellectual efforts have begun to posit the survivor not as a traditionally centred, stable self but rather in postmodern terms--decentred, multiple, fragmented, unfettered by a single notion of truth.

Yann Martel's Life of Pi--part bildungsroman, part philosophical treatise, part fantasy--is foremost an experimental survivor narrative that participates in the emerging discourse on trauma and postmodern culture. This fictional performance of a survivor narrative prompts us to ask if a fragmented, over-determined participant in contemporary global culture may perceive and respond to trauma differently than, for instance, a Holocaust survivor or the Victorian subjects of Freud's psychotherapy. What kind of selfhood will these new survivors seek to restore, and in what form(s) will that self be articulated? And how will postmodern readers and audiences respond?

Martel offers one such articulation, albeit imaginary, in Life of Pi. This survival adventure of 15-year-old Piscine (Pi) Patel, which involves enduring against great odds for 227 days in a 20-foot lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger, offers a glimpse at the narrative possibilities for the postmodern survivor and the postmodern reader of his tale. Through fictional strategies, Martel engages with, yet radically reshapes, the survivor narrative, using metafictional and self-reflexive dimensions to suggest that a survivor must not only survive the crisis, but also come to terms with the consequences of having survived. This second phase of survival necessarily occurs in postmodern contexts of reception, and its story-making employs various postmodern forms of expression. Martel shows that, whereas trauma may interrupt one's process of being and becoming, the response to this interruption, undertaken by a postmodern subject, can be something other than an attempt to restore unity and coherence to one's selfhood or one's story.

Often anchored in the social sciences, approaches to reading survivor narratives have until recently privileged the notion of a single, stable identity that the survivor seeks to recover by telling--and hence reliving--the traumatic experience (Janet Reno's reading of Moby-Dick, discussed below, is an example). Critical responses to Holocaust literature likewise address the factual grounding of survivors' experiences and the literary means by which survivors seek to restore an ordered sense of self. Efraim Sicher, in The Holocaust Novel, actually disdains artistically experimental accounts of Holocaust experiences. Likewise echoing the practical aim of helping survivors function productively in the world, sociologists Susan Warner and Kathryn M. Felty define the transition from victim to survivor by the evolution of a reconstituted and "whole" sense of selfhood (162).

A revival of interest in Freudian psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 70s led to new theoretical connections among trauma, narrative, and the unconscious mind, many of which continue to evolve. Recent use of the term "trauma" with reference to a psychological disorder derives from the 1980 recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (Leys 5). …

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