How is the first part of Life of Pi essential for understanding the second part?

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There is a sense in which the entire narrative of this excellent and incredibly creative novel is based around Pi's struggle to define himself and to establish his own identity. Whilst of course the major narrative of his time at sea plays a crucial role in this, one of the purposes of the beginning chapters, that describe his life before this section, is to show the way that Pi struggles with his identity and has to re-fashion it. Focus on how chapter 5 begins, when Pi tells us:

My name isn't the end of the story about my name.

This of course highlights the importance of naming and how Pi, tired of being made fun of because of the resemblance of his name to "pissing," "finds refuge" in the name of Pi and through this name change is able to be himself. The way that Pi reinvents himself, which allows him to tell different stories about who he is and his place in the world, is key to the overall theme of identity in the novel. Note the way that one of Pi's problems with Christianity is that there is but one story. Pi of course re-tells the story of what is happening to him at sea to try and understand it better. As we see at the end of the tale, these stories were radically different. Above all, the text therefore, taken in its entirety seems to represent the struggle of one man trying to make sense of himself and his place in the confusing world of which he is a part. Whilst this struggle of course is heightened by the main narrative, the beginning chapters are valuable in establishing this theme through Pi's self-transformation from Piscine into Pi.