What is Martel suggesting was missing from the story set in Portugal in Life of Pi?

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In the author's note of Life of Pi, Yann Martel suggests that what was missing from his story set in Portugal was emotion and "spark."

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In the author's note of Life of Pi, author Yann Martel shares how his second book was a fiasco and how he intended to make up for such fiasco with a story based in Portugal in the year 1939.

Martel then discusses that he had grandiose ideas about how this story would come to fruition. He had a little bit of money, and he flew to India (albeit a country that has nothing to do with Portugal) to get inspired. Martel was a dreamer, was anxious, and was a bit reckless; he really thought he had matters under control.

In terms of technique, the story reunites all the elements of a "good story." He is told as much. However, as a composite, the novel "adds up to nothing," according to his critics. It just does not work.

Martel ponders this and wonders what it is that makes a piece of work effective enough to reach the masses and become special. He wonders what element is missing. It is then when he concludes that the missing element is basically a "spark." He says,

An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a
real story, regardless of whether the history or the food is right. Your story is emotionally dead, that's the crux of it.

Martell then goes on to say that this feeling leaves the artist feeling "aching hunger." The fact that he is able to get a grant to devote himself to writing the book and has the pang of desire to write a novel enables him to create the much-needed spark that helped him succeed with Life of Pi. His novel was no longer emotionally dead.

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