Life of Pi

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Newsmakers for Students
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Excerpt; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: June 25, 1963 in Salamanca, Spain
Nationality: Canadian
Occupation: Novelist
Full Text: 
Page 188

Life of Pi
YANN MARTEL
2001

INTRODUCTION

What is faith? What is friendship? What is fiction? Life of Pi explores these questions in the tale of a devoutly religious Indian boy nicknamed Pi who becomes stranded on a lifeboat with an unrestrained 450-pound Bengal tiger as his only companion. Pi draws upon his knowledge of wild animal training—his father was a zookeeper back in India—to establish an uneasy peace between himself and the tiger, which he sees as his only possibility for survival.

The novel, published in the United States by Harvest/Harcourt, is a unique blend of religious exploration, practical zookeeping advice, meditation on the nature of truth, and shipwreck survival tale. It won both the 2002 Man Booker Prize and the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and has sold over one million copies worldwide.

Life of Pi was inspired in part by a story written by renowned Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar. In Scliar's Max and the Cats, a young Jewish man flees Nazi Germany on a ship bound for Brazil, but when the boat sinks, he finds himself sharing a lifeboat with an unusual passenger: a jaguar formerly of the Berlin Zoo. Although the similarity between the two ideas generated some controversy after Martel's novel became a bestseller, both authors have acknowledged that the two books are quite different.

In an interview with Ray Suarez of Online NewsHour, Martel describes why the concept appealed to him as a writer:

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Humans aspire to really high things … like religion, justice, democracy. At the same time, we're rooted in our human, animal condition. And so, all of those brought together in a lifeboat struck me as being … a perfect metaphor.

Critical and recreational readers agree. Life of Pi earned one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the English-speaking world, the Man Booker Prize, and has been a book-club favorite among both men and women ever since. The book's narrative, stylistic, and philosophical merits have made Pi and his creator literary stars.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Yann Martel was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1963 to Canadian parents. His parents were diplomats for the Canadian government, and Martel spent much of his youth in countries such as Costa Rica, France, and Mexico. He later attended Trent University in Ontario, where he earned a philosophy degree.

Martel performed various odd jobs, including planting trees and washing dishes, before becoming a full-time writer at the age of twenty-seven. His first book, a collection of stories titled The Facts Concerning the Helsinki Roccamatios, was published in 1993 to critical acclaim but little commercial success. His first novel, Self, fared equally poorly when it was published in 1996. In his Author's Note at the beginning of Life of Pi, Martel describes it this way: "Books lined the shelves of bookstores like kids standing in a row to play baseball or soccer, and mine was the gangly, unathletic kid that no one wanted on their team."

Martel traveled to India, where he worked on his next novel; while there, he realized that the novel he had planned simply was not working out. However, he recalled a review of a book by Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar that he had encountered years before. The book was called Max and the Cats, and though he never read it, its premise stirred Martel's imagination. He immediately set to work on his own tale, superficially similar to Scliar's, but prominently featuring Indian characters and settings. In addition to the research he conducted in India, Martel spent a year researching zoology and religion after returning to Canada.

The novel he wrote, Life of Pi, was released in Canada in 2001 and proved to be Martel's breakthrough work. The book won the 2002
Yann Martel

Yann Martel © Nicolas Asfouriepa/Corbis
Man Booker Prize for Fiction, as well as the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and has since sold over one million copies. The book was followed by a collection of short stories titled We Ate the Children Last (2004). As of 2006, Martel was finishing a year-long position as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Saskatchewan Department of English.

PLOT SUMMARY

Author's Note

Life of Pi begins with an Author's Note that explains the origins of the novel. The Author's Note contains elements of both fiction and non-fiction. According to the author, Yann Martel, his second novel is published in 1996 with little fanfare, and then disappears from bookshelves without earning any sort of revenue or recognition. Already hard at work on his third novel, set in 1939 Portugal, the author decides to travel to India to complete it. While there, the Page 190  |  Top of Articlenovel falls apart; he realizes that he has lost the spark to finish it.

Not long afterward, Martel finds himself in the Indian town of Pondicherry, formerly the capital of a French colony. Here, Martel inserts a fictional episode: At a coffee house there, he shares a table with a man named Francis Adirubasamy. When the man learns that Martel is a writer, he tells him, "I have a story that will make you believe in God." Martel listens to the story, taking notes all the while; when he returns to Canada, he contacts the real-life main character of the story, Pi Patel, and interviews him extensively about his experiences. The result of those meetings is the novel that follows.

Part One: Toronto and Pondicherry

Chapters 1-10

Piscine Molitor Patel is the son of the zookeeper of the Pondicherry Zoo in southern India. He is named after the Piscine Molitor, regarded by family friend Francis Adirubasamy—a former professional swimmer—as the very best swimming pool in the world for its time. In school, Piscine receives the unfortunate nickname "Pissing," and he even notices his teachers using the moniker from time to time. To combat this, on his first day at his new English-speaking secondary school, he informs the students and teachers that he is called "Pi," like the mathematical term. The nickname quickly catches on.

One of Pi's favorite teachers is Mr. Satish Kumar, who ignites in Pi a love of zoology that stays with him into adulthood and guides his later studies. Kumar, however, is an atheist, and Pi—a Hindu—cannot understand when he declares, "Religion is darkness." Pi learns that Kumar stopped believing in God when he was stricken by polio as a child. Pi observes, "What a terrible disease that must be if it could kill God in a man."

Pi and his older brother Ravi spend much of their childhood in the zoo, interacting with exotic animals on a daily basis. They learn much about caring for wild animals, including the importance of establishing acceptable territorial boundaries. Pi forms the opinion that zoos are less like prisons and more like five-star hotels for the animals, who—unlike their "free" brethren—do not have to worry about predators or food. He knows from experience that the human visitors are far more dangerous to the zoo animals than the other way around. However, one Sunday morning when Pi is eight years old, his father Santosh takes the two boys to the tiger exhibit to emphasize how deadly a wild animal can be if given the chance. Santosh has a live goat placed in the pen next to a Bengal tiger, and he removes the barrier between the pens. The tiger viciously attacks the goat, and it is "enough to scare the living vegetarian daylights" out of Pi.

Chapters 11-23

As part of his zoological education, Pi learns that to train a wild animal—as a lion trainer in the circus does—the trainer must first establish himself as the socially superior animal or he risks being "challenged" or attacked. Superiority is established by laying claim to the central space of the ring, and by using noise, movement, and posture to ensure the animals know who is in charge.

Much as Mr. Kumar ignited Pi's love of zoology, Pi credits his Auntie Rohini with instilling in him a love of religion, specifically Hinduism. She took him to a temple when he was just a baby; although he does not remember that first outing, he states, "A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day."

At fourteen, while vacationing with his family, Pi embraces a new religion: Christianity. Out of curiosity, he enters a Catholic church and learns of Jesus Christ from the parish priest, Father Martin. At first Pi is confused by this strange religion: The story of Jesus is a gruesome and tragic tale, and Jesus seems far more human than god, often behaving stubbornly and petulantly. However, Pi cannot resist the simple and overpowering message of love that the story of Jesus presents. He tells Father Martin he wants to become a Christian. He does not dismiss Hinduism, but rather incorporates both religions into his spiritual regimen and field of study.

A year later, Pi adopts Islam as his third faith. While exploring the Muslim quarter of Pondicherry, he enters a bakery run by a Muslim mystic named Satish Kumar (the same name as Pi's biology teacher). The Muslim man introduces Pi to the tenets of Islam, and soon Pi begins praying with the man at the local mosque. Pi credits both Satish Kumars with shaping the course of his life: "Mr. and Mr. Kumar led me to study zoology and religious studies at the University of Toronto. Mr. and Mr. Kumar were the prophets of my Indian youth."

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Pi's father considers himself "rich, modern and as secular as ice cream," and knows nothing of his youngest son's religious habits. Pi suspects that his mother knows, though she says nothing. One Sunday, while the family strolls along a beachfront boardwalk, Pi's three religious worlds collide: The holy men of each local church—a Catholic priest, a Hindu pandit, and a Muslim imam—approach Pi and his family at the same instant to exchange greetings. As soon as each tries to lay claim to Pi's exclusive devotion, an argument ensues. Pi does not understand why they say he must choose between the faiths.

Chapters 24-36

Pi continues his three-pronged religious worship, and he asks his parents if he can be baptized and get a prayer rug. At first they resist, telling Pi that he must choose one religion; his father notes that the boy "seems to be attracting religions the way a dog attracts fleas." Ultimately, they relent and hope that he will simply grow out of his religiosity. Pi finds that his "blasphemous" reputation sometimes precedes him at the local houses of worship; he starts attending a different church and visits the Hindu temple only during busy periods when he can pass unnoticed.

Soon, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi takes over the government of the nearby state of Tamil Nadu; fearing for the future of a free India, Pi's father decides to sell the zoo and move his family to Canada. Most of the animals are sold to different zoos around the world; some of them travel to their new homes on the same Japanese cargo ship as the Patel family, called the Tsimtsum.

Part Two: The Pacific Ocean

Chapters 37-47

Four days after the Tsimtsum leaves the port of Manila and enters the Pacific Ocean, it sinks, making a sound "like a monstrous metallic burp." Pi does not know what is happening at first—only that the ship is leaning to one side, and the zoo animals are loose on the ship's deck. Pi is tossed into a low-hanging lifeboat by members of the ship's crew; suddenly a zebra leaps from the bow of the ship and lands in the lifeboat with him, and the boat crashes down to the water.

Pi soon spots the head of Richard Parker, one of the zoo's Bengal tigers, swimming toward the lifeboat. At first he is relieved to see a familiar face, and he wants to help save him; however, he soon realizes that sharing a lifeboat with a 450-pound tiger would be hazardous, and he tries to scare the tiger away. Richard Parker is not dissuaded, and as he climbs aboard the lifeboat, Pi bails out.

Realizing he cannot survive in the open sea, Pi devises a way of hanging off the edge of the boat from an oar, using a life ring to support himself. He stays like this through the night as the Tsimtsum disappears beneath the sea. The next day, fatigue forces Pi to make his way onto the lifeboat despite the tiger. He scoots onto a tarp that is tightly secured over the top of the boat's front half, making a sort of roof that can support his weight. Once on the tarp, he looks into the boat; he sees no sign of Richard Parker, but does see both the zebra—which broke its leg landing in the lifeboat—and, on the other side of the injured zebra, a hyena. Though the hyena is a dangerous animal, Pi is relieved because he believes Richard Parker must have left the boat; it is impossible to think that both a hyena and a tiger would share the same cramped quarters.

Orange Juice, an orangutan from the Pondicherry zoo, floats up to the boat on huge mass of bananas—cargo obtained in Manila—and climbs aboard. Pi salvages a net that binds the bananas, but foolishly does not collect any of the fruit. The hyena, which mostly stays at the opposite end of the boat, attacks the zebra, ripping off its injured leg and eating it. The hungry carnivore soon begins devouring the rest of the zebra, even as it still lives. After the zebra is gone, the hyena attacks Orange Juice; although the orangutan fights admirably, the hyena kills it. Convinced he is the next to go, Pi steps toward the edge of the tarp and readies himself to fight the hyena. Looking down from the edge, he notices that directly beneath him is Richard Parker's gigantic head and paws. The tiger has been lying directly beneath Pi for two and a half days.

Chapters 48-58

Pi reveals how Richard Parker got its unusual name. The tiger cub, along with its mother, was found near human dwellings in Bangladesh during a search for a man-eating panther. Although the tigers did not pose an immediate threat, they had to be relocated. A hunter shot both with tranquilizer darts, and the animals were caged and taken to the Pondicherry zoo. On the paperwork, a shipping clerk mixed up the name given Page 192  |  Top of Articleto the tiger cub (Thirsty) with the name of the hunter who captured it (Richard Parker). Pi's father found the mix-up quite funny, and kept the erroneous—and far more interesting—name.

Desperate for water, Pi unhooks the front of the tarp and peers under to find a storage locker at the front of the boat. With Richard Parker dangerously close, Pi opens the locker and finds a wealth of supplies, including enough water to last one survivor 124 days and enough food rations to last ninety-three days. The locker also contains a dozen solar stills, used for converting seawater to drinkable fresh water, and materials for fishing.

Not feeling safe sharing the boat with a tiger and hyena, Pi begins building a raft out of oars and life preservers; he plans to connect his raft to the lifeboat using a rope from the storage locker with a distance of about thirty feet between them. As Pi builds the raft, Richard Parker attacks and kills the hyena.

Although he had hoped to simply outlast Richard Parker, Pi comes to a realization: "We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat. We would live—or we would die—together." He decides he must tame the tiger for his own safety.

Chapters 59-72

Although he stays mostly on his makeshift raft, Pi establishes his territory on top of the lifeboat's tarp by spreading his own urine across it—much like Richard Parker marks his territory underneath the tarp. He also tries his hand at fishing, despite a lifetime of vegetarianism, both to supplement his food rations and to provide Richard Parker with much-needed sustenance. His first catch comes not from a line and hook, but from a school of flying fish that get caught in the lifeboat as they skim by; soon, though, he is able to haul in large fish called dorados like a seasoned seaman. At first he has a difficult time killing any of the fish, but he soon overcomes his reluctance. Reflecting on this swift but necessary change in himself, Pi notes, "It is simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything, even to killing." Soon, he finds himself catching sea turtles and butchering them, drinking their blood to quench his terrible thirst.

Pi uses the turtle shells as protective shields for his training sessions with Richard Parker. By provoking the tiger out of his safe area and then blowing on a whistle and rocking the boat to exacerbate its seasickness—a dangerous maneuver that results in the tiger knocking him overboard four times—Pi eventually establishes himself as the alpha male of their tiny pack.

Chapters 73-91

The two castaways fall into a routine of sorts, collecting fresh water from rainfall and the solar stills, collecting food wherever they can catch it. Fish, sharks, turtles, and even the occasional bird are consumed without hesitation, with Pi giving the bulk to Richard Parker as quickly as possible to avoid unwanted confrontation. He notes:

It came as an unmistakable indication to me of how low I had sunk the day I noticed, with a pinching of the heart, that I ate like an animal, that this noisy, frantic, unchewing, wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate.

One day, an oil tanker passes within feet of the tiny lifeboat. At first, Pi is convinced that they are saved; however, it soon becomes clear that no one aboard the vessel has seen the lifeboat, and the tanker sails on obliviously. Pi promises Richard Parker that he will get the tiger to land somehow.

One day, Richard Parker mysteriously goes blind. Soon after, Pi finds himself in the same predicament. Sure that he has reached his end, Pi says his farewells to his long lost family; to his surprise, another voice responds. At first, Pi believes the voice to be in his head, but soon he guesses that he is hearing the voice of Richard Parker. "The carnivorous rascal. All this time together and he had chosen an hour before we were to die to pipe up." However, Pi realizes that the voice—complete with a French accent—belongs not to Richard Parker but to another castaway who has crossed their path. The man, who also claims to be blind, boards Pi's boat and attempts to strangle him. Before Pi can warn him, Richard Parker attacks the man and kills him.

Pi boards the man's boat and finds a small amount of food and water, which he consumes before returning to his own boat. Later, after repeatedly rinsing his eyes, Pi regains his vision and finds a horrific scene: the man's body has been half-eaten and dismembered, and his face is completely gone. Pi takes one of the man's arms for use as fish bait and, after being driven to desperation by his own hunger, tastes a small piece of the man's flesh.

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Chapters 92-94

Pi prefaces his next unusual experience with the warning, "I made an exceptional botanical discovery. But there will be many who disbelieve the following episode." One day, Pi spots what looks like a forest in the distance. At first he believes it to be a mirage, since there appears to be no land at all—just trees and green that continue below the surface of the water. When the boat gets closer, however, Pi steps out onto the mass and discovers that it is indeed real; although it is not land, the spongy, kelp-like surface is firm enough to support his weight.

Pi finds that the tube-like vegetation on which he stands consists of an edible outer ring that contains not only fresh water, but also a sweet, sugary flavor. As he feasts on this new source of both food and water, Richard Parker ventures from the boat and bounds up a tall ridge toward the center of the plant-island. Pi moors the boat to the island and sleeps on the boat's tarp—his established territory—for his own security. He is surprised to find that, sometime after sunset, Richard Parker has also returned to the boat. This pattern continues for several days, with the tiger disappearing over the ridge during the day and returning at night. Finally, Pi regains enough strength to climb the ridge himself and see what has been drawing Richard Parker's attention.

Pi discovers an enormous colony of meerkats living there, upon which Richard Parker feeds gluttonously. Scattered across the central plateau of the island are numerous ponds containing fresh water, from which dead oceanic fish rise to the surface and are collected by the meerkats. Pi guesses that the plant-island desalinates large columns of seawater with its tube-structures, and the fish caught within the fresh water die and float to the surface. However, the mysterious and wonderful island soon becomes horrifying. Pi plucks what he believes to be a fruit from one of the trees, and he discovers that its center contains a full set of thirty-two human teeth. He then discovers that the island-mass secretes an acid at night that breaks down all animal material on its surface for easy digestion. The island is one giant carnivorous plant; the meerkats escape death only by fleeing to the safety of the island's trees at night. Pi decides that he and Richard Parker cannot stay, and once again they take to the sea.

Pi and Richard Parker reach the shore of Mexico exactly 227 days after the sinking of the Tsimtsum. When they exit the boat, Richard Parker runs off down the beach and disappears into the jungle, never to be seen again. Pi laments the tiger's sudden departure: "I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell…. That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day."

Pi is soon found by some villagers and taken to a local hospital. His ordeal has finally ended.

Part Three: Benito Juárez Infirmary, Tomatlán, Mexico

Chapters 95-100

The final portion of the book contains a transcript of an interview conducted by Japanese maritime officials seeking answers about the loss of the Tsimtsum. The officials journey to Mexico to talk to Pi, with the hope that he can help solve the mystery of the boat's sinking.

Pi tells the officials the story of how he survived over seven months at sea with a Bengal tiger; they react with disbelief. Pi does not understand their doubt: "Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together before in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might." To satisfy the officials' desire to hear a more believable account—one without animals, as they request—Pi tells a different tale. Although similar to the first, instead of animals he shares the lifeboat with three other people: his mother, a French cook, and an injured Asian sailor. In this horrific account, the cook behaves as viciously as the hyena, but without the excuse of being a wild animal. The cook kills both the sailor and Pi's mother in his desperate quest for food; in the end, Pi manages to kill the cook, and he eats his heart.

The Japanese officials accept this account and prod Pi for additional information that might help them explain the sinking. He has none. Before they leave, Pi brings up the two different stories he told them. After the men concede that neither story matters to their investigation of the ship's fate, Pi asks them:

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 the animals or the story without the animals?

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The Japanese officials agree that the story with the animals is the better one. In their final report, they note although the mystery of the sinking of the Tsimtsum may never be known, Pi's survival for 227 days at sea with a Bengal tiger is an extraordinary tale "unparalleled in the history of shipwrecks."

CHARACTERS

Francis Adirubasamy

Francis Adirubasamy is a longtime family friend of the Patels. His stories of his days as a professional swimmer in Europe lead Santosh and Gita to name their second child Piscine Molitor, the name of a Paris swimming pool that Adirubasamy claims was far and away the best pool in all of Europe.

Adirubasamy is also the man who first shares Pi's story with author Yann Martel, during the author's visit to Pondicherry. Adirubasamy tells Martel that the story will make him believe in God.

Asian Sailor

In Pi's second account of the shipwreck, the Asian sailor is one of the four survivors in the lifeboat after the sinking of the Tsimtsum. His leg is severely injured, just as the zebra's leg is injured in Pi's first account. The French cook convinces Pi and his mother to help him remove the sailor's leg, purportedly to stop the spread of infection. The sailor dies within days, much like the zebra.

French Cook

The French cook appears in Pi's second account of his time as a castaway. His attitude and actions parallel those of the hyena in the first account. In the second version, the cook is one of four survivors in the lifeboat. He appears to become mad with hunger almost immediately, despite the lifeboat's supply of rations; he catches flies and eats them, and he consumes a rat he finds aboard the lifeboat. He also convinces Pi and his mother to help him remove the Asian sailor's injured leg to save the young man's life. In truth, the cook wants to use the leg as bait for fishing. After the sailor dies, the cook sneaks pieces of the dead man's flesh for his own nourishment.

One day, when Pi accidentally loses his grip on a turtle the castaways are trying to haul aboard and eat, the cook hits him. Pi's mother hits the cook, and the two begin struggling. The cook kills Pi's mother, but he does not try to kill Pi. Pi fights the cook and kills him soon afterward and eats the cook's heart.

Satish Kumar

Satish Kumar is the name given to two different characters in Life of Pi. The first is Pi's biology teacher, an atheist who sparks in Pi a lifelong interest in the natural world. The teacher has not believed in God since he was a boy, when he was stricken by polio.

The other Satish Kumar is a bakery owner and a Sufi, or Muslim mystic, who introduces Pi to the basic tenets of Islam. This prompts Pi to adopt Islam as his third religion and to pursue religious studies later in his academic career. As Pi notes, "Mr. and Mr. Kumar were the prophets of my Indian youth."

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

An abridged audio adaptation of Life of Pi was released by HarperCollins in 2003. The book is read by Kerry Shale and is currently available on compact disc.

An unabridged audio recording of Life of Pi was released by HighBridge Audio in 2003. The book is read by Jeff Woodman with Alexander Marshall, and is currently available in both compact disc and audio cassette formats. This version is also available as an audio download through www.audible.com.

Yann Martel

Yann Martel is the real-life author of the book, but he also makes himself a character in the book. In the Author's Note, amid an otherwise factual account of his life, Martel the real author inserts a fictional episode in which Martel the character meets other characters from his own book and receives inspiration from them. He wants readers to believe that he has actually met both Page 195  |  Top of ArticleAdirubasamy and Pi and that his book is a recording of actual events that they have relayed to him. This is, of course, not true.

Martin

Father Martin is the priest who first explains the basic beliefs of Christianity to Pi during a Patel family vacation to Munnar. Pi is impressed by Father Martin's willingness to welcome him into the church and spend time explaining the story of Christ. Pi is also drawn to the all-important message of love found in the story. On his last day of vacation, Pi tells Father Martin that he wants to become a Christian; Father Martin tells the boy, "You already are, Piscine—in your heart. Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a Christian. Here in Munnar you met Christ."

Tomohiro Okamoto

Tomohiro Okamoto is one of the two Japanese maritime officials sent to Mexico to interview Pi about the sinking of the Tsimtsum. After hearing Pi's story, Mr. Okamoto and his associate express doubt about the tale's veracity. Pi does not waver, but he ultimately agrees to give them another account more in line with what they expect to hear. Neither tale sheds any light on the mystery of the shipwreck, though Mr. Okamoto does admit to Pi that his first account—the one with the zoo animals—is the "better story."

Orange Juice

Orange Juice is a Borneo orangutan from the Pondicherry Zoo. She survives the sinking of the Tsimtsum on a huge floating mass of bananas. Orange Juice ends up boarding Pi's lifeboat, where she is eventually killed by a spotted hyena that is also aboard the boat.

In Pi's second version of his survival at sea story—the version that does not involve animals—Pi's mother replaces Orange Juice in the lifeboat; she is killed by the French cook, who takes the place of the hyena from the first story.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker is a 450-pound Bengal tiger from the Pondicherry Zoo. His name is the result of a clerical error on some shipping paperwork when he was captured as a cub. Richard Parker is actually the name of the hunter who captured the tiger, while the tiger's name is supposed to be recorded as Thirsty. However, Pi's father, amused by the transposition, decides to keep the more human name. When the Tsimtsum sinks, Richard Parker swims to the safety of Pi's lifeboat.

Richard Parker suffers from seasickness, which Pi uses to his advantage when attempting to tame him. The tiger accepts Pi as the alpha male; he also sees the boy as his sole provider of food and water, and therefore does not attack him. Richard Parker saves Pi's life twice: first by killing the vicious spotted hyena in the lifeboat, and then by killing the murderous blind castaway they chance upon in the middle of the ocean. When the lifeboat finally reaches land in Mexico, Richard Parker quickly disappears into the jungle and is never seen again.

Gita Patel

Gita Patel is Pi and Ravi's mother. In Pi's first account of the shipwreck and its aftermath, his mother dies during the sinking of the Tsimtsum. In his second account, his mother survives by floating on a mass of bananas, just as the orangutan Orange Juice does in the first account. His mother is later killed by the French cook during an argument.

Pi Patel

Piscine Molitor Patel

Better known as Pi Patel, he is the son of a zoo-keeper in Pondicherry, India, who becomes stranded at sea for 227 days with a Bengal tiger. His full name is taken from a well-regarded swimming pool in Paris. As a youth, other schoolchildren brand Piscine with the awful sound-alike nickname "Pissing," so he decides to shorten his name to Pi.

Although born into Hinduism, in his teens Pi begins to explore the religions of Christianity and Islam. He begins practicing all three, believing they are all just different flavors of the same message of God's love. His parents and the local religious leaders object, telling Pi that he must choose only one religion, but he does not. When the reader is introduced to Pi as an adult, it is clear that all three religions still play a vital role in his life.

In 1977, when Pi is sixteen, his father decides to move the family to Canada and sells the zoo; however, the Tsimtsum, the boat that carries Pi's family and many of their zoo animals, sinks in the Pacific Ocean. Pi loses his family in the tragedy, and he ends up stranded on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Page 196  |  Top of Article
A Siberian tiger

A Siberian tiger © Frank Lukasseckzefa/Corbis
Pi tames the tiger and provides food and water for both of them for 227 days, until they finally reach the shore of Mexico. After recovering, Pi lives in Toronto with a foster mother and later attends the university there, studying both religious studies and zoology. When the author meets Pi, more than twenty years after the tragic shipwreck, Pi still lives in Toronto and is married with two children.

Ravi Patel

Ravi is Pi's older brother. He does not share Pi's interest in religion, and he even makes fun of Pi for his strange devotional habits. Ravi's primary interest is in the sport of cricket, and his athleticism makes him a popular student at the private school the two boys attend. In both versions of Pi's account of the shipwreck, Ravi dies when the Tsimtsum sinks.

Santosh Patel

Santosh Patel is Pi and Ravi's father and the zookeeper for the Pondicherry Zoo. According to Pi, "Father saw himself as part of the New India—rich, modern and as secular as ice cream." Santosh fails to understand why his youngest son is so interested in religion, and he hopes that Pi will simply outgrow it.

In 1977, Santosh, who disagrees with the direction in which Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is taking the country, decides to sell the zoo and move his family to Canada. According to both versions of Pi's account, his father dies during the shipwreck that occurs on their way across the Pacific.

THEMES

Religious Devotion

One of the main themes in Life of Pi is religious devotion. A large section of part one of the book concentrates on Pi's experiences with three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Pi's first religious devotion is to Hinduism, which he traces back to his earliest youth when his Aunt Rohini first takes him to a temple: "A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate."

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When Pi is fourteen, he also adopts Christianity. He does not end his devotion to Hinduism, but he merely supplements it with teachings from the Bible and a deep belief in Christ's love. A year later, he also adds Islam to his list of practiced religions. Pi does not see these three religions as contradictory in any way; during a discussion with his father, he observes, "Muslims say the God of the Hebrews and the Christians is the same as the God of the Muslims." However, the adults around him tell him that he must choose only one—or none at all, an option his father supports.

Pi never wavers in his devotion to all three religions. Throughout the novel, he references stories and characters from each of the three religions wherever appropriate. For example, when Pi's lifeboat drifts into a school of flying fish, he compares the onslaught to the hail of arrows that befell Saint Sebastian. On another occasion, while fishing, Pi wishes he had eight arms like the goddess Durga so he could perform all the necessary tasks at the same time. When he first sees Richard Parker approaching the lifeboat after the shipwreck, Pi exclaims, "Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu, how good to see you, Richard Parker!"

Pi continues his three-way religious devotion even as an adult. The author character describes the décor he sees when he visits Pi's home in Toronto:

In the living room, on a table next to the sofa, there is a small framed picture of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, flowers tumbling from her open mantle. Next to it is a framed photo of the black-robed Kaaba, holiest sanctum of Islam, surrounded by a ten-thousandfold swirl of the faithful. On the television set is a brass statue of Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic lord of the dance, who controls the motions of the universe and the flow of time.

The Nature of Truth

The nature of truth is one of the most fundamental themes in Life of Pi. In his Author's Note, Martel asserts that the tale of Pi is true, and that he has met both Pi Patel and Francis Adirubasamy in real life. Throughout part one of the book, Martel even intersperses short chapters that describe Pi as an adult living in Canada, over two decades after the shipwreck, providing details about his home, his wife, and his family.

Throughout the book, Pi expresses the view that those who rely only on reason and facts to inform their view of the world too often "lack imagination and miss the better story." In this way, Pi suggests that truth does not necessarily need to come from facts or science, but that faith and belief can provide equally valid truths for those willing to accept them.

Part three of the novel consists primarily of an "official" transcript of an interview that Japanese shipping officials conducted with Pi soon after his lifeboat washed ashore in Mexico. Again, the author suggests that the transcript is a factual, real-world document, which reinforces his earlier statement that the story is true. When the Japanese officials call into question Pi's version of events, however, the narrator addresses the subject of truth in an entirely different way: "Isn't telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?" Rather than argue that his story is true, Pi simply tells the Japanese men another story that more closely matches what they consider plausible. Afterward, he asks the men which story they think is better. The men choose the first story, which is less plausible but offers a much more appealing view of the world. In doing so, the men choose their own "truth."

STYLE

First-Person Narrative

Life of Pi is primarily a first-person narrative. A first-person narrative is a story that is told directly by one of the characters involved in the story. In this case, the story is told by Pi Patel, the main character, who refers to himself in the first person (using words like "I" and "me") throughout the novel. In Life of Pi, as in many first-person narratives, the reader is given direct access to the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, but not to the thoughts and feelings of other characters in the story.

Life of Pi also contains several chapters written from the point of view of the author; these chapters are also written as first-person narrative, but they are experienced through the eyes of a different "character"—in this case, Yann Martel. In these chapters, Pi is a character whose thoughts are not directly revealed to the reader.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Life of Pi features two accounts of Pi's days as a castaway. In the first, Pi survives aboard a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger and visits an island that turns out to be an enormous carnivorous plant. In the second, Pi watches a man kill his mother and then later kills the man himself, eating his heart afterward. The Japanese officials who hear these two stories, interested primarily in why the ship sank in the first place, ultimately make no effort to prove or disprove either account (although they express disbelief upon hearing the first story). Imagine you are an investigator who must determine what really happened aboard Pi's lifeboat. You have every modern crime-solving technique at your disposal, and you are given access to both the boat and the beach on which it landed. What kind of evidence would you look for? What are some examples of evidence that would support Pi's first story? What are some examples of evidence that would support Pi's second story? Write a report outlining your plan for solving the mystery, including what types of evidence you would search for to prove or disprove either account.
  • Author Yann Martel has been criticized for "borrowing" the main premise of Life of Pi from another book, Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats. In that book, a Jewish family of zookeepers from Berlin move to South America, but become shipwrecked on the way; in one scene, a young man ends up sharing a lifeboat with a panther. Martel admits that he got the idea from reading a review of Scliar's novel—he even thanks Scliar in his Author's Note—but claims he has never actually read the other author's book. Moreover, according to Martel's defenders, although the books both contain similar premises, the writing style, theme, and other elements are altogether different. Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism best drawn? What about works that take a well-known storyline, such as that of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and place it in a new setting? Write an essay outlining your feelings on the subject of borrowing ideas from other writers.
  • In Life of Pi, the narrator Pi provides a great deal of detailed information about zookeeping. He also aims to dispel the popular notion that zoo animals are prisoners that would be better off in the wild. By way of comparison, he asks, "Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?" Do you feel that animals in zoos lead a better life than animals in the wild? What benefits does a zoo animal have over its wild brethren? What benefits do wild animals enjoy? Write an essay explaining your position. Be sure to include examples and arguments to support your opinion.
  • In Life of Pi, the narrator argues that those who seek only facts from the world around them are missing out on "the better story." Think of a perfectly believable real-life experience you have had. It could be as simple as doing your homework or going to the store. How could you change it to make it a "better story"? Write out this new version of your story. Be sure to include sensory details to make the story come alive for the reader.

In addition, part three of the book contains a fictional transcript of an interview with Pi shortly after he reaches safety in Mexico. This transcript is not presented from the point of view of any of the characters, and it is meant to be an objective recording of the words spoken by each character.

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Metafiction

Metafiction is a modern style of fiction in which the author deliberately calls attention to the story as a fictional creation. Often the author does this to make a point about how the fictional world relates to reality, and vice versa. In Life of Pi, author Martel calls attention the fictional nature of his story in several ways. First, the entire work is a sort of "story within a story," a fictional creation within which a smaller work of fiction exists. The main story of Pi, which is the core of the novel, is surrounded by additional parts that are also fictional, such as the Author's Note and the interview transcript in part three. These parts attempt to frame Pi's tale within a real-world scenario, and lead the reader to confront his or her own ideas about fact and truth. This resonates with the novel's message of finding truth in a "better story" instead of just looking for the most reasonable explanation of events.

Martel also allows Pi to address the reader directly on several occasions throughout his narrative, which reminds the reader that they are indeed experiencing a story. Pi also shares his thoughts on how his story might be structured, and he forewarns the reader about events that might be hard to believe. These are all traits commonly found in metafiction.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Pondicherry and French India

Though most people associate colonial India with the British Empire, parts of India were claimed as territories by the French as early as the 1600s. These French claims were mostly concentrated along the eastern coast of India, with Pondicherry serving as the main seat of French colonial interests. Pondicherry became a successful port and, like many other colonial strong holds in India, became the scene of territorial struggles between the French and the British.

A devastating clash occurred in 1761, when British forces seized control of Pondicherry and destroyed the city; they returned Pondicherry to France four years later, and the city was quickly rebuilt. However, the two colonial powers continued to battle for control of Pondicherry and other eastern Indian settlements for the next several decades. By the 1820s, the region stabilized and Pondicherry made slow progress toward regaining its former grandeur.

After British India gained its independence in 1947, France was placed under increasing pressure to relinquish its colonial territories in India. As Yann Martel relates in his Author's Note at the opening of Life of Pi, the French "left Pondicherry in 1954, leaving behind nice white buildings, broad streets at right angles to each other, street names such as rue de la Marine rue Saint-Louis, and képis, caps, for the policemen." In the novel, Pi and his family live in Pondicherry, where Pi's father runs the zoo.

A Brief History of Zoos

Zoological gardens, typically known as zoos for short, are collections of wild animals—often considered exotic to the area—that are kept within enclosed areas in such a way that visitors can observe them. In the broadest sense, according to Vernon Kisling's Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens, early forms of zoos have existed for five thousand years. These earliest animal collections were often little more than game reserves and seldom featured exotic creatures.

In the Middle Ages, as European traders traveled into previously inaccessible regions, they often brought back specimens of new and exotic animals for their royal sponsors. This led to the development of menageries, which were simply exotic animal collections owned by wealthy citizens and royalty. These animals were not used for primarily scientific research or for public enjoyment, but for the social status the owners received by laying claim to such rare creatures. As Kisling notes, "While gardens were pervasive throughout the social strata of societies, living animal collections were, for most of their history, restricted to royalty and the wealthy classes."

By the 1800s, the tide had turned in favor of scientific study, and the first zoological gardens were established throughout Western Europe. Their popularity led to the establishment of multiple zoos throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia. Although zoos remained an important resource for the scientific study of wild animals, the focus of many zoos slowly shifted to public education and entertainment to subsidize scientific programs and zoo expansion. Today, while zoos continue to provide entertainment to the public, their main focus is on educating patrons about conservation of wild habitats and preserving species that are in danger of becoming extinct. In addition, many zoos Page 200  |  Top of Article
The Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean © Bob Krist/Corbis
participate in breeding programs intended to help endangered species improve their chances of surviving and flourishing in the wild.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

When Life of Pi was first published in Canada in 2001, it earned the author rave reviews and a Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. However, it was only after the book received the prestigious 2002 Man Booker Prize that international success ensued.

In a review for the Nation, Charlotte Innes wrote, "If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel's novel is surely a contender." Innes also noted that, although Martel follows a well-established literary structure, he both "infuses the genre with brilliant new life" and "restores one's faith in literature." Gerald T. Cobb, in a review for America, expressed a similar sentiment, calling it "a book that reinvents the lost-at-sea novel in quite striking terms." Cobb also described the work as "gripping and unforgettable." Roberta Rubenstein, writing for the World and I, called the book "a wonderful adventure tale whose originality, imaginative detail, suspense, and immediacy will keep you turning pages breathlessly until the very end." Rubinstein described Martel's writing as "vivid, witty and profound," and noted that the author "pushes the reader to see higher and further and differently." In a review published in Book, Paul Evans called the novel "a work of wonder" and proclaimed Martel "a limpid stylist with a flair for the poetic." Francis Henry King, writing for the Spectator (U.K.), called the work "a book of sometimes perplexing, often disconcerting but always remarkable originality," further noting that the book is "rich in incidental treasures of style and thought." Gary Krist, in a review for the New York Times, called the book "extraordinary," though he conceded, "There are times when Martel pushes the didactic agenda of his story too hard."

In a review for Time International, Bryan Walsh observed that the premise of the book "could easily become precious, but Martel saves his novel from saccharine whimsy by grounding it in hard reality." Still, Walsh felt that the book is Page 201  |  Top of Article"a bit overballasted" by Pi's survival at sea, and concludes "inevitably, boredom leaks into his story." In a review for the New York Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra pointed out two flaws in the novel. First, he noted, "Some of Martel's descriptions of religious practices in India carry the whiff of an encyclopedia entry, or a tourist's scrupulously kept journal." Second, he argued that "Martel is unable to reveal adequately, after the flurry of colorful religious information in the early pages, the precise nature, or vacillations, of Pi's faith."

Even as critics generally praised his novel and sales of the book skyrocketed, Martel found himself at the center of a literary controversy. Although he never hid the fact that Moacyr Scliar's book Max and the Cats provided him with the fundamental scenario of his book—that of a young man trapped aboard a lifeboat with a potentially man-eating great cat—some members of the literary community cried foul at the similarity. In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, Brazilian author Scliar expressed the following opinion on the matter:

In a certain way I feel flattered that another writer considered my idea to be so good, but on the other hand, he used that idea without consulting me or even informing me. An idea is intellectual property.

Martel's supporters point out that, according to the law in many countries, ideas are not protected by copyright—only the actual artistic works are protected. The two novels, they argue, are markedly different in nearly every way other than the similar premise. The controversy appeared to subside soon after, and as of 2006, Scliar has not pursued any legal action against Martel or his publisher.

CRITICISM

Greg Wilson

In this essay, pop-culture writer Greg Wilson looks at author Yann Martel's use of metafictional elements in his novel Life of Pi, and how those elements are used to express the narrator's greater message about God.

Metafiction is sometimes simply described as "fiction that calls attention to the fact that it is fiction." It is usually characterized by deliberate intrusions on the reader's willing suspension of disbelief; the omniscient narrator begins making comments to the reader about characters or plot details, for example, or characters themselves express some awareness that they exist within an artificial world. However, there exists another breed of metafiction that might best be described as "fiction that actively denies that it is fiction at all." In many ways, Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a blend of two seemingly contradictory metafictional breeds, both of which ultimately address the notions of truth and reality in storytelling.

Martel works to establish his book as double-layered metafiction from the outset. In his prefatory Author's Note, he presents what appears to be a factual explanation for how the book came about. Indeed, the first half of the Author's Note appears to parallel the author's real-life experiences quite closely. Having published two not-very-successful books, the author travels to India to clear his head and work on a third. However, his supposedly true narrative quietly slips into fiction without offering the reader any sort of clue. Indeed, the author prefaces the made-up genesis of his tale with an altogether factual history of Pondicherry, India. This sober account lulls the reader into an easy credulity, on which the author capitalizes by proclaiming that the following story of Pi Patel is quite true, and was first relayed to him by a friend of the Patel family named Mr. Adirubasamy, who told the author that the story "will make [him] believe in God."

At the same time, the author—who resembles the real-life Yann Martel, but is clearly also a participant in a larger fictional world—reminds us of the book's artificiality. He thanks both Pi Patel and Mr. Adirubasamy for their contributions to the book, yet he also thanks Mr. Moacyr Scliar for "the spark of life." It would be easy for an unknowing reader to overlook this detail; only upon further research does one discover that Moacyr Scliar is the author of a book titled Max and the Cats about a Jewish Page 202  |  Top of Articlefamily that runs a zoo in Berlin in 1933; the family decides to relocate their zoo to Brazil, but their ship sinks during the journey. Ultimately, one character becomes trapped on a lifeboat with a panther. Familiar, yes? Even as he insists in his Author's Note that the story is based on real events, Martel reveals the true fictional inspiration for his work.

Martel peppers his main narrative with similarly contrasting metafictional elements. For example, the author makes it clear from the start that, although the majority of the story is conveyed from the first-person point of view of Pi, it is actually written by author Yann Martel. This is reinforced through occasional chapters written not from Pi's point of view but from the author's; these chapters describe Pi, his home, and his family in an almost journalistic style. Although this calls attention to the fictional nature of the main tale, it also serves to authenticate Pi as a real person and suggest that his experiences, no matter who has written them down, are real.

The author—writing as Pi—also references other pieces of "real-world" literature, primarily in his discussions of sloths and zookeeping. These sections read almost like encyclopedia entries on their stated subjects, and quoting of real pieces of scientific literature again serves to lend the narrative credibility. Similarly, when Pi is lost at sea, the factual style of the survival manual he reads has a grounding effect amidst Pi's increasingly odd experiences aboard the lifeboat.

At the same time, the author self-consciously calls attention to the narrative as a story by having the narrator communicate directly to the reader on several occasions. For example, after describing his first several weeks on the lifeboat, Pi says of his continuing tribulations, "But I don't know if I can put them in order for you. My memories come in a jumble." Later, referring to the floating carnivorous plant-mass he finds, Pi tells the reader that "there will be many who disbelieve the following episode." Near the end, Pi even muses on the structure of his narrative: "For example—I wonder—could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less?" Similarly, the fact that Pi is stranded at sea for exactly 227 days (22 divided by 7 is the mathematical definition of pi) calls attention to the story's self-consciously crafted structure.

The overall effect of this interweaving of metafictional devices is clear: The author is leading readers to question not only the facts of the story as they have been told, but also any facts that are not experienced firsthand. This calls to mind Patricia Waugh's description of such works in her book Metafiction: "In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality outside the literary fictional text." This metafictional play culminates in part three of the book, the "transcript" portion that takes place after Pi has returned to land. The Japanese maritime officials to whom he tells his story express doubt, and they ask him instead for the "straight facts," without invention. Pi counters: "Isn't telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?" Pi continues: "The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?" The very act of relating a "true-life" event, Pi argues, is a feat of storytelling just as much as the creation of a fantasy tale.

To satisfy his interviewers, Pi tells another story about his experiences at sea—this one without any reference to exotic animals, as the Japanese officials request. In his new tale, he shares the lifeboat with people instead of animals: The orangutan becomes his mother; the zebra becomes an Asian sailor; the hyena turns into the ship's French cook. The events in his second tale, though they closely parallel the events of the first story, are far more mundane and horrific; the cook cuts off the sailor's injured leg to use it for bait, and then dines on the sailor's flesh after he bleeds to death. Eventually, the cook kills Pi's mother, and Pi kills him and eats his heart in turn. In this version of the tale, the Japanese men note, Pi has assumed the role of the tiger.

The Japanese men find this tale easier to believe, terrible though it is, since it does not include exotic animals and undiscovered carnivorous plant-islands. The reader is left to wonder: Did Pi make up the first story, which the reader has experienced in vivid and enduring detail, as an allegory of what really happened aboard the lifeboat? Or did he merely craft a more believable version of the story just to satisfy the Page 203  |  Top of ArticleJapanese officials? Even within the context of what the reader knows is a fictional story, the reality of Pi's experiences within that fictional world are suddenly cast into doubt. That the reader feels shock at this possibility—that a fictional character might be making up a story, just as the reader knows the author is doing—is a testament to Martel's ability to craft a convincing protagonist. It is also the ultimate metafictional violation of the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief."

After telling this second story, Pi points out that neither story can explain the sinking of the ship, which is the mystery the Japanese officials had hoped to solve. Pi then asks:

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 the animals or the story without the animals?

Suddenly, the author's intent becomes obvious. He does not seek to trick the reader into believing a made-up tale, nor does he aim to dismiss the objective aspects of the real world. Ultimately, Martel is not at all concerned with the differences or similarities between fiction and reality. He argues that, in a situation where all other elements are irrelevant, distinguishing fact from fiction is pointless; both are equally valid, or equally invalid. There is only one important question to ask: Which is the better story?

The first story borders on religious allegory, odd and beautiful and uplifting; the second story "won't make you see higher or further or differently," as Pi notes, and smacks of the "dry, yeast-less factuality" so often sought in the sciences. Readers have come to the author's grand message, and the business end of Mr. Adirubasamy's assertion that the tale would cause the reader to believe in God. Is the "better story" one that expands your mind, heart, and spirit (think religion), or one that merely confirms what you have already guessed (think science)? Both require equal amounts of faith, because neither can be proven.

So, which is the better story? In Pi's case, the message is clear: The one that keeps you going; the one that lends you the courage to survive in a world that can be cruel and inexplicable; the one that celebrates the wonders of the world, instead of lamenting its shortcomings. Fact, fiction, or metafiction, that is the better story.

Source: Greg Wilson, Critical Essay on Life of Pi, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe, is a classic tale of an English castaway who survives for twenty-eight years on an exotic island. Like Pi, Crusoe finds himself drawn to religion as one source of the strength he needs to survive.

The Old Man and the Sea (1952) is a classic by Ernest Hemingway. This novella tells the tale of an old fisherman's ordeal at sea as he attempts to land and bring back to shore the largest catch of his life. The story was at least partly responsible for Hemingway receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

Interpreter of Maladies (2000), by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories centered on first-generation Indian Americans and their efforts to adjust to life in a new society. One story, "Bless This House," deals with a newlywed Hindu couple who find that their new house is a veritable trove of Christian religious artifacts.

Self (1996) is Yann Martel's first novel. It is the tale of a young man who switches genders overnight on two different occasions and contains many of the same ideas about religion and belief that the author used to shape Life of Pi.

Midnight's Children (1980), by Salman Rushdie, is a Booker Prize-winning novel about two Indian children born at the same instant India establishes its independence. The two children—one from a rich Muslim family, and one from a poor Hindu family—are switched at birth and develop into arch-enemies with strange abilities.

Randy Boyagoda

In the following essay, Boyagoda contends that the elements of religion in Life of Pi confuse and diminish the otherwise strong adventure tale.

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Good news came from across the Atlantic late last year. England's most prestigious literary award—the Booker Prize—had been awarded to a work that made the following assertion on its inside cover: "This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?" That sophisticated English literary palettes thought this a reasonable claim—and that Canadian Yann Martel's The Life of Pi has since become a bestseller—may be an indication that growing numbers of people, thirsting for more substance in their lives, are beginning to seek more substance in their reading. Or, alternately, it may be a comment on the brand of popular piety Martel's novel proposes.

The protagonist of The Life of Pi is the precocious son of a pragmatic zookeeper, an Indian boy fascinated by his nation's many faiths but forced by its many political problems to emigrate to Canada along with his family and their animal charges. During the voyage, their ship suddenly sinks, leaving the boy on a lifeboat along with a few furry survivors; ultimately only Pi and a tiger remain. As the duo drift through the Pacific Ocean, struggling to survive the elements, Pi must also struggle to survive his shipmate; he relies on his wits and his faith in, intermittently, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam to do so. After a series of adventures—some wondrous, some gruesome—their boat washes up in Mexico and the two part ways. We never hear from the tiger again, but we do hear from Pi. In fact, he retells his story as an adult living in Toronto, in a house whose décor—a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe rests beside a photo of Kaaba; a brass statue of Shiva stands beneath paintings of Christ; a prayer rug lies near a bedside Bible—inadvertently displays our protagonist's eclectically tacky approach to religion.

The Life of Pi seems to have as many literary predecessors as India has religions. There are traces of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, St. Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, and Aesop's Fables. But The Life of Pi also asks to be the latest in the long line of grand tales about India, novels that seek to capture what Martel himself calls "the rich, noisy, functioning madness" of the place, and a great deal of the novel's flaws rest in that ambition. The encounters of two more famous orphans with India's religions provide a sense of what Pi lacks. Kipling's Kim and Rushdie's Saleem Sinai dash from one end of India to another, experiencing the nation's religious panoply as it must be—as frenzied, vital, occasionally terrifying—rather than as a well-meaning Canadian might imagine it: as polite, passive, frequently meek.

For example, the adult Pi, an Indian orphan-cum-Canadian immigrant, recalls finding a Gideon Bible in a hotel room. He praises the Gideons, then advises: "They should leave not only Bibles, but other sacred writings as well. I cannot think of a better way to spread the faith. No thundering from a pulpit, no condemnation from bad churches, no peer pressure, just a book of scripture quietly waiting to say hello, as gentle and powerful as a girl's kiss on your cheek." The author's patent lack of appreciation for the intensity and particularity of religious devotion explains such myopic idealism and saccharine imagery. In telling us that the Bible (and "other sacred writings") is "just a book" to spread "the faith," Martel reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between God and religious practices. Martel offers a confusing pastiche of devotions brought into unity by the sincerity of individual intention and action, rather than by virtue of the singular truth inherent in any of the religions Pi purports to follow.

Pi's repeated all-inclusive paeans to his private trinity of faiths detract from an otherwise enjoyable tale, which Martel achieves when he forgets about religion and concentrates on telling his young hero's adventures. Running through the chaos of a sinking ship; watching a tiger wrestle a shark; exploring a mysterious island; devising ways to catch turtles and gather fresh water—these are but some of the novel's small pleasures. In matters not religious, Martel chose the right narrator: Pi's innocent voice allows us to revel in the wide-eyed pleasures of this world as only a young boy on a fantastic voyage can experience them. Consider Pi's description of the fearful symmetry of raw elegance and sublime power occasioned by his tiger companion returning to their boat:

He surged onto the stern, quantities of water pouring off him, making my end of the boat pitch up. He balanced on the gunnel and the stern bench for a moment, assessing me. My heart grew faint. I did not think I would be able to blow into the whistle again. I looked at him blankly. He flowed down to the floor of the Page 205  |  Top of Articlelifeboat and disappeared under the tarpaulin. I could see parts of him from the edges of the locker lid. I threw myself upon the tarpaulin, out of his sight—but directly above him. I felt an overwhelming urge to sprout wings and fly off.

Like Pi, we are breathless, a tiger-training whistle dangling from our lips, as much from the beauty as from the terror of a wild animal in close proximity.

However grateful we may be to Martel for such moments, the third and final section of his novel limits our general appreciation by enlisting us in a clumsy postmodern game of narration and belief. The section is comprised of a transcript between two Japanese representatives of the shipping company and Pi, recuperating in a Mexican hospital room. The Japanese have no time for Pi's unbelievable musings and insist upon a factual account of the ship's sinking, so Pi retells his tale, turning his animal shipmates into humans. The new version is more comprehensible but less enjoyable: either way we can never know which version "actually" happened. We likely entered the novel as skeptical as are the Japanese, but having heard the story, we now face a test of faith: Which do we believe? Of course Martel wants us to believe in Pi's original version, with the floating banana island and the man-eating plants and the flying fish. In his view, to do so is a leap of faith, which in turn is a leap towards God: the God brought into existence by the novel itself, a strange mishmash of religious notions and figures that together comprise the deity that Pi creates and celebrates. In short, a God of fiction.

Martel should have stuck to the metaphoric approach he takes to religion at the end of the novel's second section, when Pi finally reaches land. In his darkest moment, Pi perceives: "The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God." The next chapter opens: "When we reached land," a phrase that with simple perfection conveys the foundation given to us when we rely on God's power, rather than on our own. In one of the novel's few instances of coherent religious meaning, Martel echoes St. Paul and Kempis' Imitatio in telling us that if we turn to God in our lowest moments, inevitably we will be raised up on high. A meaningful moment, sadly set adrift amongst so much faith-as-flotsam. If only we could agree with Pi's approach to religion, we could enjoy his Life. Were we to read in a compartmentalized way, taking bits and pieces from here and there that amuse or ennoble us, ignoring the deeper implications of such a piecemeal commitment to a unified whole, we could happily sail along with boy and tiger. But such a way of reading, of professing, indeed of living, while so symptomatic of our contemporary condition, ought not be our course.

T. S. Eliot made the following distinction: "We must believe that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order, though some of it may be written by people with individual notions of a supernatural order which are not ours." Martel falls into the latter camp: unfortunately, his invitation to believe in God through his novel is too individualized to be reasonable. We do not turn to fiction to find the true God, and we should not turn to it to find a recipe for making a God agreeable enough to our personal tastes to believe in. We turn to good novels in part to exercise our imaginations, and The Life of Pi allows for that in some places. Yet Martel goes much further, to imply that we can find God by using our imaginations freely. But we can only hope to find God by using our imaginations wisely. Fiction, on its own, cannot create truth. The finest books can at best sound the depths of the human condition and bring rumors of the highest truths. They help chart our course towards that undiscovered country where we all hope, someday, to land.

Source: Randy Boyagoda, "Faith, Fiction, Flotsam," in First Things, May 2003, pp. 69-72.

Elizabeth Palmberg

In the following excerpt, Palmberg praises the affecting portrayal of faith and the divine in Life of Pi.

One of the many and fruitful exaggerations in Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the assertion, made by a minor character, that Pi's story will "make you believe in God." With humor, incisiveness, excellent writing, and an uncompromising fidelity to the messy compulsions of the human heart, what the novel really compels is not belief in God but sympathy for those who seek God. For readers invested in the sacred, it is a well-finished novel about unfinished business.

Young Pi Patel, a zookeeper's son growing up in India in the '60s and '70s, has no trouble believing in God. By age 15, he is simultaneously Page 206  |  Top of Articlean active Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, unbeknownst to his agnostic parents, and Pi compares the three religions' stories and practices in rich, quirkily reverent prose. Of Christianity, all Pi initially knows is that "it had a reputation for few gods and great violence. But good schools." Initially, Pi is bemused by Christianity's emphasis on conversion—"religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance"—and repelled by its "one Story" of crucifixion and atonement, which strike him as "downright weird."

After a few days of visiting a kindly priest, however, Pi is conquered by Christ's message of love. Not much later, a gentle Sufi mystic and baker leads Pi to experience Islam as a "beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion." The teenager also cheerfully agrees with Gandhi that "all religions are true."

What the book is mainly about, as the cover illustration suggests, is Pi's travails once he is trapped on a life raft with an adult Bengal tiger, the last survivor of his father's zoo. Here, Martel's sense of humor gives way to a sense of the absurd, references to God diminish, and Pi's struggle to survive, physically and emotionally, takes center stage.

When Pi has exhausted every resource, when "the rest of this story is nothing but grief, ache, and endurance," he says, "it was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God." But this is the end of a chapter, rather than the beginning, and the next chapter describes not God but landfall.

As Life of Pi's early chapters make clear, Pi himself will go on to piety and comparative happiness in Canada. The novel, in contrast, comes to a climax immediately after Pi's rescue, when he struggles to describe how the sharp knife of suffering has cut away his family, his health, his vegetarianism, and arguably his grip on reality. Martel makes all of these losses, particularly the last, bear rich fruit.

By the end, Pi's belief in God and love has been honed down to a stark, unhopeful, desperate need for God and love—or for storytelling, which Martel seems to regard as the same thing. Even those of us who do not fully agree on that point will find in this beautifully crafted novel utter honesty, passion, and yearning for the sacred.

Source: Elizabeth Palmberg, "Man Overboard," in Sojourners, Vol. 32, No. 2, March-April 2003, pp. 55-56.

SOURCES

Cobb, Gerald T., "Adolescent Mariner," in America, Vol. 188, No. 13, April 14, 2003, p. 22.

Evans, Paul, Review of Life of Pi, in Book, July-August 2002, p. 78.

Innes, Charlotte, "Robinson Crusoe, Move Over," in the Nation, Vol. 275, No. 6, August 19, 2002, p. 25.

King, Francis Henry, "A Ghastly Crew (Life of Pi by Yann Martel)," in the Spectator (U.K.), Vol. 288, No. 9067, May 18, 2002, p. 43.

Kisling, Vernon, Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens, CRC, 2000, p.2.

Krist, Gary, "Taming the Tiger," in the New York Times, July 7, 2002, query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C05E6DC123EF934A35754C0A9649C8B63 (July 4, 2006).

Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Harvest/Harcourt, 2002.

――――――, interview with Ray Suarez for Online NewsHour, November 11, 2002, www.pbs.org/newshour/conversation/july-dec02/martel_11-11.html (July 4, 2006).

Mishra, Pankaj, "The Man, or the Tiger?" in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 50, No. 5, March 27, 2003, pp. 17-18.

Rohter, Larry, "Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat: A Furor Over a Novel," in the New York Times, November 6, 2002, p. E1, col. 5.

Rubenstein, Roberta, "Adventure Afloat—The Classic Tradition of Castaway Tales and Survivor Stories Will Never be the Same," in the World and I, Vol. 17, No. 9, September 2002, p. 253.

Walsh, Bryan, "Castaway With Karma: Yann Martel's Novel Life of Pi Strands a Religious Indian Boy and a Bengal Tiger Together in the Middle of the Pacific," in Time International, Vol. 160, No. 10, September 2, 2002, p. 94.

Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction, Routledge, 1984, p. 2.

FURTHER READING

Hediger, Heini, The Psychology and Behavior of Animals in Zoos and Circuses, translated by Geoffrey Sircom, Dover Publications, 1968.

Hediger, a former zoo director and expert in animal communication, is an authority on the behavior of captive animals. In Life of Pi, the main character refers to Hediger as "a wise animal man."

Kisling, Vernon, Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens, CRC, 2000, p.2.

This book is a thoroughly researched history of mankind's relationship with captive and collected wild animals, and the changing motivations that continue to promote such collections.

Page 207  |  Top of Article

Scliar, Moacyr, Max and the Cats, translated by Eloah F. Giacomelli, Plume, 2003 (English translation originally published in 1990).

This novella, about a young Jewish man fleeing the Nazis who at one point ends up in a lifeboat with a jaguar, inspired Yann Martel to use a similar premise in Life of Pi. Taken together, the two books provide an interesting example of how writers can create strikingly different works based on similar ideas.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3479700021