The War on Terrorism
In late 2002, America, only one year removed from the September 11 attacks, had just defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan but was deeply divided over the impending war in Iraq. At a time of continued anxiety over possible attacks from al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorists, Americans were increasingly curious about Islam. Many struggled to understand why many Muslims hated America and why the al Qaeda airplane hijackers were driven to kill otherwise innocent Americans. Many Americans saw the need to deal with, and perhaps make peace with, Muslims after the carnage that al Qaeda had wrought on the United States. However, books such as Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations (1996, Simon & Schuster) asserted Christian and Islamic cultures were absolutely opposed and could not peacefully coexist. As an earnest practitioner of Christianity Islam and Hinduism who saw no conflict between these three beliefs, Pi became a symbol of how the major religions of the world could coexist and that they in fact shared many common features. Pi’s reconciliation of three different faiths stood in sharp contrast to the violence between Christian and Muslim peoples that was evident both in America and in the Middle East.
In the decades before the issue of a possible clash between Muslim and Christian cultures arose, growing numbers of Americans had also become less attached to specific churches while still affirming a belief in God and seeking to pursue a religious path. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph (London) shortly after receiving the Man Booker Prize, Martel said his novel “will make you believe in God or ask yourself why you don’t.” Pi, a believer who does not choose between the various visions of God offered by the world's different religions, offered American readers a way to explore faith and spirituality without having to follow any specific creed or tradition....
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Analysis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
“In Life of Pi we have chosen an audacious book in which inventiveness explores belief,” said Lisa Jardine, chair of the committee which selected Yann Martel’s novel for the 2002 Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most publicized and arguably most prestigious literary award. The choice was surprising given the competition; the shortlist comprised Sarah Waters, Tim Winton, the venerable William Trevor, and three Canadians: Carol Shields, dying of breast cancer; Rohinton Mistry, all three of whose novels have been shortlisted for the Booker, and Martel. Although the dark horse, Life of Pi was much admired by reviewers, including fellow Canadian and former Booker winner Margaret Atwood: “a terrific book . . . fresh, original, smart, devious, and crammed with absorbing lore . . . a far-fetched story you can’t quite swallow whole, but can’t dismiss outright.” The power of Martel’s novel may be gauged by how well it survived a tabloid-style attack, following the Man Booker ceremony, for not being original enough, borrowing too freely from an obscure 1956 Brazilian novel, Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats. Set in 1933, Scliar’s novel concerns a young Jew who, fleeing Nazi Germany, survives shipwreck by sharing a lifeboat with a panther. That Martel acknowledges Scliar’s novel in his “Author’s Note” as having provided the “spark of life” to Life of Pi hardly mattered, least of all at a time when accusations of plagiarism in high places (against historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin) and the debate over intellectual property rights in the global economy were all the rage.
Martel’s “Author’s Note,” a playful mélange of fact and fantasy (the “author” here is and is not Martel), puts the novel in a more autobiographical context. Born in Spain to French Canadian parents (his father a diplomat and poet), the well-traveled Martel grew up wherever his father was posted. After studying philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, he published a collection of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamantos (1993), and a novel, Self(1996). Both received good notices but were commercially unsuccessful. Martel went to India where, depending on whether one believes the author or the “Author’s Note,” one (or both) of two things happened. Either the writer who had planned to write a novel set in Portugal in 1939 suffered writer’s block until he ran into an elderly man, Mr. Adirubaswamy, who told him “a story that will make you believe in God,” the story that became Life of Pi, or the writer, this time speaking ex cathedra rather than from within the factoidal “Author’s Note,” had a vision. The north Indian plain before him became in his imagination an ocean with a lone lifeboat floating upon it. He began researching his novel while still in India, visiting zoos in the south, then returned to Canada where he read extensively in zoology and animal psychology, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam; he even started attending Catholic mass. Over the course of writing his novel, he became what his protagonist is, a believer, albeit a believer of an odd and oddly inviting kind.
That protagonist is Piscine Molitor Patel, from Pondicherry, a former French colonial city that is now part of the modern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Named for a Parisian swimming pool but later saddled with the moniker Pissing Patel by a classmate, he reinvents himself as Pi. “And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated roof, in that elusive irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge.” The son of secularized parents (as is Martel), Pi becomes as enamored of religion (or religions) as he is of science, but when priest, pandit, and imam each tries to claim him as his own, as his atheist science teacher previously tried, Pi balks, critical of their small-mindedness. When a short time later Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, proving similarly small-minded and territorial, brings down the local government, Pi’s father, owner of the local zoo, decides that the family will immigrate to Canada.
On July 2, 1977, just eleven days after leaving Madras, the ship goes down. After 277 days in a 26-foot lifeboat, Pi and Richard Parker, a 450 pound Bengal tiger, arrive in Mexico, the sole survivors. At first, however, the lifeboat is a bit more crowded, its “ecosystem” more complex. The hyena eats the zebra and then the orangutan, before being eaten in turn by Richard Parker, who does not eat Pi. That he does not is as improbable as the tiger’s name, only more ambiguously explained. The simple explanation is that Pi, the zookeeper’s son, manages to master the beast. However, nothing is ever quite so simple in this artful fable, in which simplicity is invariably a means, not an end in itself. Man (or boy) and tiger, Pi and Parker, become dependent on each other: the tiger on Pi for food and water, Pi on the tiger for a strange kind of companionship...
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1. Where did Pi get his given name? (Chapter 3)
2. How did Pi come to be called Pi? (Chapter 5)
3. What does the Pi mean? (Chapter 5)
4. What does Pi's home in Toronto tell the author about his character? (Chapters 6 and 15)
5. Who is Mr. Satish Kumar? (Chapters 7 and 20)
6. How does Pi's father prepare him for the ordeal on the lifeboat (unknowingly), and how does he handicap him in this ordeal? (Chapter 8)
7. How is the Patel's family departure from India like the attempts of animals to escape from the zoo, and how is it different? (Chapter 10)
1. Pi was given the name Piscine Molitor Patel after a family friend (Francis Adirubasamy)'s favorite swimming pool.
2. Pi renamed himself, starting with his first day at Petit Séminaire when he wrote his name on the blackboard in each class and underlined the "Pi" in Piscine. He forced the nickname on those around him through repetition, which he thought was important in training not only animals but also humans.
3. Pi (π), the mathematical symbol, represents the ratio between the distance around a circle (the circumference) and the distance across its center (the diameter): π=3.14.
4. Pi's house is jammed full of food; he is terrified of ever going hungry again. But it is also jammed full of religious icons, as if he were terrified of going "hungry" of meaning.
5. There are two Satish Kumars in Life of Pi. One is a biology teacher, a Communist, a rationalist, and an atheist. The other is a baker and a Sufi mystic. Both teach Pi in ways that shape his soul.
6. The answers to both questions are the same: the intimate knowledge he provides of animals. This knowledge lets Pi survive and guides him in taming Richard Parker. It also handicaps him because Mr. Patel taught him never to get close to an adult tiger.
7. In chapter 10, Pi notes that animals try to escape not to something, but from something. The Patel family's "escape" from India is similar to this in that Mrs. Gandhi's changes force Mr. Patel to leave India. Their departure is different in that they were not fleeing blindly, but rather consciously seeking something better.
1. What are Pi's initial objections to Christianity? (Chapters 17)
1. Pi objects to the fact that Christianity has only one core story, which gets told and retold; this seems sparse compared to Hinduism's profusion of stories. Pi is troubled by the content of the story and reacts with disbelief that Christ had to die for the sins of humanity. He also objects to the character of Christ, who seems an unconvincing and unimpressive god compared to Hindu gods, a god who seems too human.
1. What does the author learn about Pi in Chapter 30, and what does this fact teach him about himself? (Chapter 30)
1. He learns that Pi is married (and meets Pi's wife, Meena). Once he meets Meena, the author realizes that there had been "small signs of conjugal existence" and that they "were there all along"; Pi's home was marked by his marriage, but the author did not pay sufficient attention to notice.
1. What were the major difficulties in preparing to move the Patel family zoo from India to Canada? (Chapter 34)
1. There were physical difficulties and social ones. The physical difficulties—actually shipping the animals—were less challenging than the social ones. The social challenges took the form of the paperwork required and of the respective value the market placed on the animals.
1. Why did the Tsimtsum sink? (Chapter 38)
1. No one knows. Pi heard an unfamiliar noise, perhaps an explosion, but never got an explanation before the...
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Life of Pi can be read as a parable. A parable is a story told in such way that it parallels a particular lesson that the storyteller is trying to teach the audience. The most famous parables in Western culture are those told by Jesus in the New Testament Gospels of the Bible. In Life of Pi, Pi himself is the storyteller, and he relates two very different stories: a fantastic, yet hopeful and encouraging story about being stranded on a lifeboat with animals, and a more realistic, yet bleak story about being stranded on a lifeboat with human beings. The choice Pi offers between the two stories is a parable for the choice between having faith in God that cannot be proven, or atheism. The...
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- The audiotape version of Life of Pi was issued in January 2003 by Highbridge Audio, with Jeff Woodman narrating.
- The movie adaptation of the book is forthcoming in 2006 from Fox 2000, with Alfonso Cuarón directing and Dean Georgais writing the screenplay.
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