It is easy to see why Yann Martel's 2001 novel, Life of Pi, was widely praised and went on to become an international bestseller. Martel tells a story both striking and unique, the life story of Piscine Patel. When he was growing up in India as the son of a zookeeper, Piscine was teased unmercifully for his name, so he shortened it to Pi, as in the mathematical symbol π. This change of name is only the first of several fascinating changes Pi experiences. Some are more or less under his control, like his pursuit of truth by simultaneously studying Christianity Hinduism, and Islam. Some, like his father's decision to move the family to Canada, are not under Pi's control, especially when the ship carrying the Patel family sinks and Pi is stranded in a lifeboat with only a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-pound tiger for company.
The bulk of this fascinating, colorful novel focuses on Pi's struggles to survive and to make sense of this dehumanizing condition in which he finds himself. Every setting, from India to the lifeboat and on to Mexico once Pi is rescued, is vividly rendered. Martel has an eye for vivid details and piles them on, making this novel a joy to read and supremely easy to imagine.
Life of Pi begins with an author’s note written by a character named Yann Martel. Martel confesses that his previous novel received poor reviews and faded into obscurity and he lost interest in writing another novel. Martel sought inspiration in India, where he met a strange old man who directed him to Piscine “Pi” Molitar Patel. Pi’s life story inspired Martel’s new novel.
Piscene grows up in Pondicherry, India, the son of a zoo keeper. Young Piscine suffers as a boy because of his name, which sounds very close to the word “pissing.” When Piscine changes schools, he takes the opportunity to rename himself “Pi” after the mathematical symbol, publically declaring his new name to all. With his new name, Pi enjoys a happy childhood, free from mockery, as he explores the zoo, makes many friends, and relishes life with his close-knit family.
An intelligent and deeply religious boy, Pi excels in the study of his native religion, Hinduism. Surprisingly, however, Pi explores two more of the world’s major religions—Islam and Christianity—when his family vacations in Munnar. With the help of a Muslim mystic named Satish Kumar and a parish priest named Father Martin, Pi becomes a devotee of both religions. As an old man, Pi will still practice the three faiths of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, making him a unique religious figure.
Pi’s life in India ends when his father sells the zoo and moves the family to Canada. The family embarks across the Pacific Ocean on the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum with a menagerie of zoo animals to be sold to North American zoos. Unfortunately, the Tsimtsum sinks, taking Pi’s family with it. Pi makes it safely onto a lifeboat, where, besides some vermin, his only companions are a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutang, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
At first, Pi does not see the tiger, so he lives in fear of the hyena. Since Pi paid such close attention to everything his father said about wild animals, he manages to survive the hyena’s predatory advances long enough to see it kill and eat the zebra and orangutang. Pi observes nature’s cruelty with horror, realizing that he will become the hyena’s next victim. Pi has virtually surrendered himself to the savage hyena when, suddenly, the tiger makes his presence known, easily destroying the hyena and saving Pi’s life.
Pi remains adrift on the Pacific Ocean with a tiger for 227 days. He struggles to survive and overcome his sudden orphaning, his new grief, seasickness, endless waves, relentless storms, starvation, thirst, blazing sun, desiccative salt water, skin sores, utter loneliness, and despair, as well as the aggressions of an infamous predator. The vegetarian boy finds himself eating fish and turtles raw; the frightened boy tames a tiger; the devout disciple of three religions grapples with his faith in God, discovering indomitable strength therein. Pi surprises himself with the depth of his resolve to live, overcoming all obstacles with his powerful will.
While adrift, Pi has two remarkable encounters: He discovers a new, carnivorous species of algae, and—after going temporarily blind—he runs into another survivor from the Tsimtsum, a Frenchman adrift in his own lifeboat who has also gone blind. The Frenchman attacks Pi intending to eat him. Before he can kill Pi, however, he is attacked and eaten by the tiger.
The novel ends with the transcript of an interview between Pi and two investigators, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, who are trying to determine what caused the Tsimtsum to sink. The men refuse to believe the more fantastical parts of Pi’s story, such as Pi surviving 227 days on a lifeboat with a tiger or coincidentally running into the Frenchman. They demand that Pi tell them the real story of what happened, and he finally offers them an alternative version of his story.
Pi tells the investigators that the lifeboat held four human survivors: Pi, his mother, the French chef from the Tsimtsum, and a Japanese sailor with a broken leg. He claims that the Frenchman amputated the sailor’s leg when it became infected and used the leg as fishing bait. When the sailor died, the Frenchman butchered the body and, in addition to using it for bait, ate some. This horrified Pi and his mother so much that Pi’s mother periodically berated and attacked the chef for many days, until the chef killed her while Pi watched. Then, apparently consumed with grief and despair over killing Pi’s innocent mother, the chef allowed Pi to kill him in revenge.
The investigators appear satisfied with the second version of Pi’s story, though they are impressed with the parallels between the two versions. Pi points out that neither story helps them understand what caused the Tsimtsum to sink. Given that both stories are equally valid for the men’s purposes, Pi asks which version they prefer. The men prefer the first, more mysterious and unusual story, the one with the animals. Mr. Okamoto includes the first version in his official report.
Sources for Further Study
Boyagoda, Randy. “Faith, Fiction, Flotsam.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 131 (May, 2003): 69-72. Critical review of Life of Pi that appreciates the story’s power but argues that Martel’s scattered views on religion weaken the book.
Cloete, Elsie. “Tigers, Humans, and Animots.” Journal of Literary Studies 23, no. 3 (September, 2007): 314-333. Provides a complex analysis of the tiger’s role in the novel, drawing upon major theories in literary studies to examine the representation of relationships between humans and animals.
Duncan, Rebecca. “Life of Pi as Postmodern Survivor Narrative.” Mosaic 41, no. 2 (June, 2008): 167-183. Analyzes the novel’s self-reflective, postmodern characteristics, paying special attention to the text’s portrayal of Pi’s subjective experience of trauma.
Dwyer, June. “Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and the Evolution of the Shipwreck Narrative.” Modern Language Studies 35, no. 2 (Fall, 2005): 9-21. Focuses on animal-human relations in the novel, comparing this work to other important works about animal-human relations such as The Black Stallion (1941).
Innes, Charlotte. “Robinson Crusoe, Move Over.” The Nation 275, no. 6 (August, 2002): 25-29. Favorable review focusing on the novel’s religious themes of both faith and doubt.
Krist, Gary. “Taming the Tiger.” The New York Times, July 7, 2002, p. 5. Represents early and positive press, providing a thorough review with some analysis.