Yann Martel says, "This book was born as I was hungry." What sort of emotional nourishment might "Life of Pi" have fed to its author?
In Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi, there is, at the beginning of the novel, an author's note. It is here that Martel says, "This book was born as I was hungry." He goes on to describe the debut of his second novel, which was released in Canada and received poor reviews and very little reader interest. What is interesting about this author's note is that it is difficult to distinguish whether it is a part of the novel itself or merely a commentary by the author. The author's note is written in italics, as are the interjections of the author throughout the novel, as he is a sort of narrator. It's left to the reader to infer whether the author's note is a part of the book or an explanation of the origins of the novel. In my opinion, it's part of the brilliance of Life of Pi.
Taken at the level of what the text directly states, the author was searching for a truly great story. The emotional fulfillment he got from being hungry and in search of this great story was the thrill of discovery of the story of Piscine Patal. In the author's note, Martel meets a man in India who tells him, "I have a story for you that will make you believe in God." Such a treasure is certainly emotional fulfilling for a writer who seeks the truth and beauty of a life-changing story. Martel speaks of the lack of this fulfillment in the author's note:
"It's a misery peculiar to would-be writers. Your theme is good, as are your sentences. Your characters are so ruddy with life they practically need birth certificates. The plot you've mapped out for them is grand, simple and gripping. You've done your research,gathering the facts—historical, social, climatic, culinary—that will give your story its feel of authenticity. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with colour, contrast and telling detail. Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. In spite of the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been pestering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: it won't work. 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. The discovery is soul-destroying, I tell you. It leaves you with an aching hunger."
The story of Pi, his search for God as a young boy which propels him to join three major religions, and then his incredible survival of the shipwreck is a story that is charged with emotional life. The fact that he survives the shipwreck on board a lifeboat which contains two predators and two other exotic animals is extraordinary. Pi's fear, longing, and eventual victory become something that readers can feel deeply, getting lost in the experience of the book, which, as an author, was what Martel longed for. When the ship's investigators refuse to believe the story of the tiger, hyena, orangutan, and zebra aboard the lifeboat, another layer is added to the story as Pi transforms the animals into humans with the behaviors as the animals. It truly is a novel that causes readers to think and feel long after they've finished reading.
Before Yann Martel wrote "Life of Pi," he had written 2 previous novels that had completely flopped. They didn't get very good reviews, and had little or no success in the market. He was feeling completely discouraged about writing, and about the power of a really good story to have any impact or success in our world. He was hungry for validation that stories, imagination, and a good tale was still something that could add a lot of meaning, enjoyment and success to one's life. He traveled a lot, drifting aimlessly, trying to find a good idea for a story. He was hungry for a good tale, one that would capture his imagination and his excitement. While he was traveling in India, he read a book about a man and a panther on a lifeboat--Martel thought to himself, that's it! THAT's the great story idea that I have been hungering for. If it hadn't been for Martel's searching for a great story that lights the imagination, if it hadn't been for his hunger for that validation in this world, "Life of Pi" might have never been written. Despite the fact that his 2 previous novels flopped, he still hungered for a story that would succeed, not only in the world, but in restoring his faith in the power of the imagination.
A major theme of "Life of Pi" itself is that of imagination and its power to make life wonderful and fulfilling. In fact, he compares life without imagination or storytelling as "dry, yeastless factuality," and presents the animal story as an alternative to that horrid and awful reality that might have been. Little Pi asks his Japanese interregators at the end which story they like better, and they readily admit, "The story with the animals." Martel is asserting that stories, imagination, a good tale, makes for a better existence here on earth. He found the idea for the story because he was hungering for a good idea, and the entire theme of the story is that of feasting on the power of the imagination.
I hope that those thoughts help a bit; good luck!