"He acquires layer after layer of diverse spirituality and brilliantly synthesizes it into a personal belief system and devotional life that is breathtaking in its depth and scope. His youthful exploration into comparative religion culminates in a magnificent epiphany of sorts." – Phoebe Kate Foster
Life of Pi is an adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The novel is a work of fiction set in the summer of 1977 that draws on places and historical events in India. The story starts in Pondicherry, a former French colony in India.
Life of Pi' is told from two alternating points of view, the main character Pi in a flashback and Yann Martel himself, who is the "visiting writer" interviewing Pi many years after the cat in the boat story. This technique of the intrusive narrator adds the documentary realism to the book, setting up, like a musical counter-point, the myth-making, unreliable narrator, Pi. The reader is left to ponder at the end whether Pi's story is an allegory of another set of parallel events or vice versa.
Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. He was named after a swimming pool in Paris, despite the fact that neither his father nor his mother particularly liked swimming. The story is told as a narrative from the perspective of a middle-aged Pi, now married and with his own family, and living in Canada. At the time of main events of the story, he is sixteen years old. He recounts the story of his life and his 227-day journey on a lifeboat when his ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a voyage to North America.
Life of Pi is divided into three sections. In the first section, the main character, Pi, an adult, reminisces about his childhood. He was named Piscine Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in France. He changes his name to "Pi" when he begins secondary school, because he is tired of being taunted with the nickname "Pissing Patel". His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, providing Pi with a relatively affluent lifestyle and some understanding of animal psychology.
Pi is raised a Hindu, but as a fourteen-year-old he is introduced to Christianity and Islam, and starts to follow all three religions as he "just wants to love God." He tries to understand God through the lens of each religion and comes to recognize benefits in each one.
Eventually, his family decides to sell their zoo over a land dispute with the government, and sell the animals to various zoos around the world before emigrating to Canada. In the second part of the novel, Pi's family embarks on a Japanese freighter to Canada carrying some of the animals from their zoo, but a few days out of port, the ship meets a storm and capsizes, resulting in his family's death. During the storm, Pi escapes death in a small lifeboat with a spotted hyena, an injured zebra, and an orangutan.
As Pi strives to survive among the animals, the hyena kills the zebra, then the orangutan, much to Pi's distress. At this point, it is discovered that a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker had been hiding under the boat's tarpaulin; it kills and eats the hyena. Frightened, Pi constructs a small raft out of flotation devices, tethers it to the boat, and retreats to it. He delivers some of the fish and water he harvests to Richard Parker to keep him satisfied, conditioning Richard Parker not to threaten him by rocking the boat and causing seasickness while blowing a whistle. Eventually, Richard Parker learns to tolerate Pi's presence and they both live in the boat.
Pi recounts various events while adrift, including discovering an island of carnivorous algae inhabited by meerkats. After 227 days, the lifeboat washes up onto the coast of Mexico and Richard Parker immediately escapes into the nearby jungle.
In the third part of the novel, two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport speak to Pi to ascertain why the ship sank. When they do not believe his story, he tells an alternate story of human brutality, in which Pi was adrift on a lifeboat with his mother, a sailor with a broken leg, and the ship's cook, who killed the sailor and Pi's mother and cut them up to use as bait and food. Parallels to Pi's first story lead the Japanese officials to believe that the orangutan represents his mother, the zebra represents the sailor, the hyena represents the cook, and Richard Parker is Pi himself.
After giving all the relevant information, Pi asks which of the two stories they prefer. Since the officials cannot prove which story is true and neither is relevant to the reasons behind the shipwreck, they choose the story with the animals. Pi thanks them and says, "and so it goes with God".
In the author's note that prefaces this vertiginously tall tale, Yann Martel blends fact and fiction with wily charm. Yes, he'd published two books that failed to shake the world – eager, studious-young-man's fiction with a strain of self-conscious experimentalism – and taken off to India nursing the faltering seeds of another. But no, he didn't there meet a wise old man who directed him to a putative "main character", now living back in Martel's native Toronto: a certain Piscine Molitor or Pi Patel, named for a French swimming pool and nicknamed for an irrational number, who in the mid-1970s survived 227 days lost at sea with a Royal Bengal tiger.
Despite the extraordinary premise and literary playfulness, one reads Life of Pi not so much as an allegory or magical-realist fable, but as an edge-of-seat adventure. When the ship in which 16-year-old Pi and his zookeeping family are to emigrate from India to Canada sinks, leaving him the sole human survivor in a lifeboat on to which barge a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan and a bedraggled, seasick tiger, Pi is determined to survive the impossible. "I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day." And Martel writes with such convincing immediacy, seasoning his narrative with zoological verisimilitude and survival tips about turtle-fishing, solar stills and keeping occupied (the lifeboat manual notes that "yarn spinning is highly recommended"), that disbelief is suspended, like Pi, above the terrible depths of the Pacific ocean.
Martel dextrously prepares us for the seafaring section in the first part of the book, which describes Pi's sunny childhood in the Pondicherry zoo and his triple conversion to Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. We learn much about animal behaviour – flight distances, aggression, social hierarchy – which is later translated to Pi's survival tactics on the lifeboat. Like a lion tamer in the circus ring, Pi must convince the tiger that he is the super-alpha male, using toots on his whistle as a whip and the sea as a source of treats, marking the boundary of his territory on the boat with urine and fierce, quaking stares.
The ongoing miracle of his existence at sea is also foreshadowed by his spiritual life on land; Pi is a creature of faith (or faiths) who sees eternally renewed wonder in God and his creation. There is joy on the lifeboat – as well as horror, and gore, and "tense, breathless boredom". He had chosen his irrational nickname because of his schoolmates' insistence on pronouncing Piscine as "pissing", but he also has a believer's scepticism about reason, "that fool's gold for the bright". In one of the many elegant, informative digressions in the book's first section, Martel takes us through instances of zoomorphism, whereby an animal takes a human or another animal to be one of its own species, and the usual predator-prey relationship is suspended. Pi characterises this adaptive leap of faith as "that measure of madness that moves life in strange but saving ways"; in other words, his coexistence with the tiger is possible precisely because it has never happened before.
Faith and science, two marvelling perspectives on the world, coexist throughout the book in a fine, delicate balance, as when the two Mr Kumars, one Pi's atheist teacher and the other the baker who introduces him to Islam, meet at the zoo to "take the pulse of the universe" and wonder together, in opposing ways, at the sheer surprisingness of the zebra and its stripes. In its subject and its style, this enormously lovable novel is suffused with wonder: a willed innocence that produces a fresh, sideways look at our habitual assumptions, about religious divisions, or zoos versus the wild, or the possibility of freedom. As Martel promises in his author's note, this is fiction probing the imaginative realm with scientific exactitude, twisting reality to "bring out its essence".
The realism that carried the reader in the erratic wake of the small boy and large tiger falters as they begin to waste away and die – and then the book gets seriously strange, with ghostly visitations and impossible islands, as though Martel wants not so much to test our credulity as entirely to annihilate it. It's an odd tactic, though it does leave a fertile interpretative space, a dark undercurrent below the narrative's main structure, which has the neatness of fable.
Though horrors are hinted at, "this story", as the book had unfashionably assured us, "has a happy ending." Pi runs safely aground in Mexico, and the tiger about which he still has "nightmares tinged with love", which saved his life by coming between him and a more terrifying enemy, despair, leaps ashore and disappears into the jungle, denying him an anthropomorphic goodbye growl. Of course, the officials who arrive to investigate the ship's sinking don't believe him for a moment. In a daring coda, Pi offers them another story, which turns the tale on its head and seals Martel's extraordinary, one-off achievement. He had written earlier about how a blinkered dedication to factuality can lead one to "miss the better story". The better story has a tiger in it.
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