“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

Part One

“Life of Pi” is a notion infuriating book. The breach of the book tells us how the author is trying to relate fiction with reality and form a story out of it. This book is ageless, time less and context less. The book has many interpretations as it tells a thousand stories. The take home for a 10 year old might not be the same as for an adult like you and me. Life of Pi is a story about you and me. Part 1 of the book tells us that Pi has encountered something devastating and extraordinary. It tells us about his life before and after the tragedy. Not knowing about the incident that happened with him builds a sense of curiosity and an urge to make us go through the pages of the book and allows us to decipher Pi as a small boy and a full-figured character.

Yann Martel is a Canadian Author who has written 5 books up till now. When he outlawed writing this book he wanted to write a novel about Portugal, but the novel “sputtered, coughed and died” and he ended up writing the legendary “Life of Pi” (Martel, 2002, vi). Yann Martel garishly tells a writer’s bleakness at the recognition that after all the hard work and investigation, his story was simply not good enough. Instead, he kept looking for a story that had a touch of reality to it. Talking about the author, one can say that he is a splendid story-teller. He has been able to master the art of symbolism as to how animals can be replaced by humans where the only difference is that animals are still more human. The way he decodes the significance of Pi makes huge sense, hats off to his originality and mind. The author has given two points of views while narrating the story i.e. there are two authors. It starts with Piscine Molitor Patel, one of the major characters of the book. It was after a long time that he narrated the story to Yann Martel.

There are many characters involved in the first section of the story in order to give a detailed outline of the story. Piscine Molitor Patel is one of the two narrators of the book and he also uses Pi as his nick name so as to stop students from making fun of his name as they kept calling him “pissing”. Pi’s uncle, Francis Adirubasamy, known as mamaji in the book, taught Pi how to swim and told him about a Parsi swimmer from where Pi got his name to be Piscine Molitor. Next is the author of the book himself. He is the anonymous narrator of the book and narrates a few minor parts of the book. Now comes Pi’s family and the people related to him that in some way or the other helped him to build up his beliefs. Santosh Patel is Pi’s father. He used to run a large hotel in Madras, but an abiding interest in animals led him to the zoo business (Martel, 2002). He taught his sons, Pi and Ravi, how to control animals yet at the same time taught them to fear the animals as well. He is Hindu but is not a religious man. Gita Patel is Pi’s mother and his care taker. She has an interest in books and asks Pi to indulge himself in reading them. She speaks her mind when she does not like Pi’s father taking over. Satish Kumar is Pi’s favorite teacher at a secondary school in Pondicherry. He recovered from polio when he was young. He is the reason for which Pi is studying zoology at the school. Father Martin is the Catholic priest who speaks his mind out in front of Pi about Christianity when he meets him in the church. There is yet another Satish Kumar who is a Muslim and whose name is same as that of Pi’s teacher. He is a poor baker. Just like the other Mr. Kumar, this man also has an impact on Pi’s mind and encourages him to study religion at school. The Hindu Pandit is one of the three religious figures in the book. These characters are from the old village where Pi used to live when he was young. Pi as a grown up lives in Canada and has a family of his own. Meena Patel is his wife. The author meets her for a real short time in Toronto. Nikhil Patel is Pi’s son and has an interest in baseball. Usha Patel is Pi’s young daughter. Tata is Pi’s dog. Pi also has an orange cat.

This is the story about a very normal Indian, to whom many unusual things have happened this normal kid called Pi. The name Pi brings a whole new meaning to the book. Firstly, Pi’s name was derived from a famous swimmer in Paris which relates to the story that Pi survived a shipwreck in an Ocean. Secondly, the mathematical meaning of the word Pi which is equal to an almost never ending number correlates the very long journey that Pi had to make in order to survive. The book is written in the 21st century, the plot is based on most of the evils prevalent in the society. It is the story of an animal called human. Pi relates to the routine in the lives of the zoo creatures to the repetition method as he uses in his school in order to tell his classmates and the teacher how his name is pronounced and they should call him “Pi”. He did this routine in every class till every teacher and student learnt to call him Pi. This method of repetition proved to be very useful in getting animals and humans to learn something effectively. In this part we learn that Pi is very dutiful from going to the church to Muslim prayers and chanting. This gives us a basic idea about the book that practicing a religion gives us a path to follow which in turn makes our life much clearer and full of energy.

Magic Realism, what else can explain the impeccable analogies designed by the author? The author has linked every thing possible like when Pi gives a brief description about his thesis on Isaac Luria’s cosmogony theory which wasn’t really necessary but became very important to the book as a whole. The theory states that God contracted to make room for the universe which is called Tsimtsum, was followed by light, carried in five vessels. These vessels were crushed and the light sunk into matter. God reordered the vessels into five figures. This relates to the main even of the story that is sinking of the ship which had five characters including Pi.

Another literary device used by him is symbolism. Like, in the case of the zoo, where Pi grew up as a boy holds a very important place in his memory. Growing up in a zoo shaped Pi’s thinking ability, taught him about animal nature and gave a whole new meaning to the word freedom. The chores that were done in the zoo like cleaning the cage, feeding the animals made Pi disciplined and regular in his work. The environment in which the animals live is all about how comforting it can get for them just like humans live in a society. So the analogy between the animals and human helped us in realizing there similarities and differences.

Both the narrators Pi and Martel are very much enthralled by the connection between religion and zoology. Pi relates the functioning of a zoo to that of a religion through many aspects. One of the examples he gives is that of freedom. He says that religion has many doctrines, rules that ought to be followed which may seem as a constraint to certain things same as the limitation that is forced on the animals in a zoo. But when these restrictions are to be removed, we cave. Life seems to be comfortable inside the walls but outside it, it becomes different and not so comfortable comparatively.

The two most important phrases of the book “dry, yeast less factuality” and “the better story” are used in this section of the book (Martel, 2002). These two phrases have opposite meaning as one depicts a more convincing and a believable story while the other explains the boring yet logical reality. In these two phrases, the latter seems to be more tempting and appealing rather than the former as it lacks life and the perkiness. These force a compulsion to originate a story that is livelier and real so that it becomes convincing. Pi relates this theory to animals saying that if under the right circumstances a lion maybe be willing to accept human beings as his own breed.

The time when Pi’s father took Pi and his elder brother, Ravi, to the zoo in order to teach them a lesson about animals that no matter how fascinating they look and how well you have tamed them they are still dangerous, he had asked Babu to get a goat with its legs tied. Then that goat was placed on the floor inside the cage adjacent to that of the tiger’s. Then slowly the trapdoor between the two cages was made to open and the tiger attacked the goat and ate it. This merciless act was staged just to make the boys learn that tigers are ferocious and are never to be made pet. The same goes with various other animals at the zoo. The boys being little have to be warned about the animal instincts.

Part Two

In the later part, the author continues to mesmerize us and at the same time, adds more creatures into the context. It’s all about the survival of the fittest. If the first part was about symbolism, this part is about change which is Pi’s transformation into a beast. It is how his survival instincts take over his human instincts. In this part, Pi completes 227 days at sea and during this time period he has changed a lot (Martel, 2002). This part involves as to how Pi becomes an adult, he looses hope to find his parents, and recognizes isolation. It was a bitter freedom that he tasted. The central theme of this part is the way Pi tames the tiger and makes him his accomplice.

This section of the book makes us understand the concept of survival of the fittest and the strongest. One needs to have a strong will power in order to go through any kind of a situation especially when it’s a matter of life and death. Freedom given to us to some extent is alright but when that freedom goes out of control that very same thing can strangle us to death or can get us into deep trouble. The brutality that is shown by the animals in this section is intolerable, yet is necessary for the survival tricks. Even with the loss of his family, Pi found solace in orange juice and Richard Parker. He tamed Richard Parker but at the same time feared him. Thinking straight and rationally helps you get out of any situation easily. No matter what happens hope should not be lost as without suffering there would be no compassion. The importance of story-telling becomes a major theme of the book and it provides a variety of options for themes like the nature of faith system while establishing a connection between animal kingdom and religion.

The leading characters in this part of the book give the whole description of how the incident happened. Pi is still mentioned here as he’s the only human being alive after the ship had sunk. He fell forty feet from the air on to a lifeboat. The tiger, whose name got mixed up with his captor and was originally named Thirsty, is Richard Parker. He knew how to swim and accompanied Pi on the lifeboat and followed his orders. The Zebra is another survivor on the lifeboat with a broken leg. His leg was eaten up by the hyena and it died slowly. Orange juice (orangutan) also survived the tragedy and was eaten up by the hyena after it gave a big blow to the hyena. It showed human like behavior. Hyena was on the boat all along even before Pi landed on the boat. He was hiding under the tarpaulin. The last character Pi comes across is the blind Frenchman. The story of this man is the same as that of Pi’s. This Frenchman knew a lot about food. The only difference between them is that Pi is considerate towards deep feelings and emotions whereas the Frenchman is not. He even practices a master-slave relation.

This part of the book depicts the almost never ending journey of Pi after the ship sank. This whole section of the book takes place in the Pacific Ocean, on a lifeboat, with animals. With the ship sinking, there are only few animals who survived this great disaster. Pi fell on a lifeboat from forty feet up in the air. Pi first notices Richard Parker, the tiger, and throws a lifebuoy towards him in order to save him. Later out of nowhere a zebra jumps on the boat and while he was jumping on the boat his leg broke. A hyena was present on the lifeboat all along but was in hiding. As few days passed by orange juice, the orangutan, came floating on a bunch of bananas and Pi was thrilled to see her as he remembered her from the zoo and orange juice had also given birth to two boys. The hyena, out of all the animals, was very powerful and aggressive. It ate the broken leg of the zebra and then slowly the zebra died. After few days the hyena fought with the orangutan and killed it. Later as the hyena was about to attack Pi, it was killed by Richard Parker. Pi feared Richard Parker and kept making plans as to how he should get rid of but then happened Plan Number Seven: Keep Him Alive (Martel, 2002) and slowly he became his companion. This impossible journey ended in a tragic way as now when Pi grew fond of Richard Parker, the tiger simply walked away without any notification.

The narrator links every tiny little detail of the book with a real object in order to make it sound plausible. Firstly, the name Pi, we can relate it to the mathematical notation Pi where it is equal to some number which is very long and never ending same as the journey Pi had to make in order to survive. Secondly, the thesis done by Pi in his university knows as the Isaac Luria’s cosmogony theory had five vessels in it same as the five characters, Pi included, on the lifeboat and the saga for survival of the fittest. Such minor and unimportant details in the book make the story not only interesting but realistic.

The theme for this section of the book revolves around the faith system. Strong will power is needed in order to believe that you can survive in the most impossible situations. Pi had faith in his religion and himself that he would make it alive. Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces where the elements couldn’t be simple and the stakes are higher (Martel, 2002). This clearly shows us that his life in those 227 days have not been easy. Pi related each animal instinct with a human instinct which is why he felt deeply for the orangutan as she showed some humanlike behavior like seasickness.

The most appealing moment in this segment of the book is the time when Richard Parker starts talking to Pi. This very part is very unusual as we have never heard an animal talk to us before but later it turns out that it’s a Frenchman who he had met in the pacific and he has gone through the same type of situations and suffering as that of Pi. This man was very hungry and after having a long chat with Pi he finally decided to eat him up but as soon as he was about to kill him Richard Parker came into the picture and killed the Frenchman instead. Pi felt sick and relieved as Richard Parker gave him a new life.

Part Three

The last part of the book and the turning point of the whole theme take place. The author gives us the options to choose between the two stories that we would want to believe. On one hand we have the “dry, yeast less factuality” and on the other hand “the better story” (Martel, 2002). The former involves brutality that one can never imagine and the later cruel but somehow more believable and thereby making us, believe in God. According to every individual and every religion that she follows, they can have their take on God and have their own perspective towards life.

I personally felt the anguish that was present in this section of the book. No human can be that atrocious so clearly the second story made up by Pi is simple fake and maybe convincing to the agnostics as they require proof for everything that happens around them. I choose the better story out of the two that is the one with animals, as it involves comparatively less torture and eventually leads to a strong belief in God.

Pi is the dominated character throughout the book. He survived the Pacific Ocean after a long journey of 227 days. He also represents the tiger in the human form of the incident that happened with him. The Chinese sailor is another survivor on the lifeboat. He represents the zebra in the second story. The cook was on the boat all along even before Pi landed on the boat. He represents the ugly hyena. He is brutal, voracious and, ate the sailor after cutting off his leg. In the second story the orange juice is represented by Pi’s mother. She is very tensed and disgusted for the Cook’s treacherous act and later on, slaps him hard across the face out of anger. Mr. Tomohiro Okamoto is an official from the maritime department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport. He interviews Pi after he is rescued. Also, forces Pi to give him a story without animals for him to present in front of his superiors as for him he just was not able to believe the story Pi told him originally. Mr. Atsuro Chiba is an assistant of Mr. Atsuro Chiba. He assists him in the inter-viewing process of Pi. He is concerned about his food.

Part 3 of the book is the most important part of the book and the part which relates to the sentence Mr. Francis Adirubasamy used “I have a story that will make you believe in God” (Martel, 2002). As, towards the end of the book we get two options, two stories whichever one seems appropriate to us we can choose that. Pi had to tell another story to the Officers as they were not able to believe the one with the animals which is the original one. So, he replaced every animal character with a human being, thereby, making the story sound vicious and horrific. Later on, after hearing the second story, the Japanese officers could not believe it anymore and then chose the animal story to be the fact and ruled the other as fiction. He takes the two officers into confidence about the human aptitude of imagination and innovation. The better story is the version that they would remember for the rest of their lives because of the astonishing facts used by Pi in his story.

The most appealing part of the book gives rise to the part where Pi how conveniently changes his story to make it sounds convincing to the officers. Pi reveals another version, one in which the animals are replaced by humans. Once we come to know this, we immediately start feeling that the animal version, that Pi disclosed wasn’t completely true and probably been made up as a way to cope with extreme tragedy. The good looking, humble zebra represents the stylish Chinese sailor. The gutless, short tempered, ugly hyena consists of all the revolting characteristics of the greedy, weak and cowardly cook. The maternal orangutan represents Pi’s own mother. And Pi is the tiger, strong, passive, watchful, ravenous, self-contained, tamed, and feral. Both versions of the story—with and without animals—are viable, and Pi never reveals it to us definitively that which tale is true and which one is false.

The original theme of the book is the consequence of storytelling. This part of the book clearly defines this theme. Also, the religious belief is taken into account. Martel adjusts the age old tradition of using animals in children’s tales and rhymes in order to support Pi’s original story and to high lighten the common things between humans and animals. Fables and children’s stories have often made use of the art of attributing human characteristics to different animal characters. However, in Pi’s story, the animals behave in a way that is obvious and similar to their own particular kind. In this way, Martel helps Pi to make it obvious to make us believe in his Richard Parker —summary something which could not have been possible if, in case, Richard Parker were a tiger who could talk or a tiger that instantly changes, against his very nature and attitude, into Pi’s friend. Furthermore, he realizes the fact that we humans are similar to animals. Animals and humans are very much alike when we look at the two more consciously. We all have an animal instinct. We have just built up ourselves because we did not want to stay away from the luxuries and comforts.

The narrator easily links the animal story with the human story for the officers making a fiction sound realistic and later deciphering as to which is better and acceptable by the people. Also the narrator overcomes the difficulty he has to face in communication between the officers the Pi. He links religion with the lifeboat. Fiction can be linked with religion. Fiction, if it is a different form of truth, dressed and refined in religion, then is like a savior that helps us from drowning in the face of our own mortality. They take the simple fundaments of nature like life and death and flavor them with consequences and give them a color so that we can take it readily. Every religion gives a story to its followers about their entrance into this world, things to do in their everyday life, and tales in order to show the original nature and face of human life. Fiction shows us different truths and lies so that we get aware of the truths accepted universally. In Martel’s book, the significance of both religion and fiction is the same as both use real and unreal things, imaginations, tales and conclusions in order to bring us closer to the realities of our existence.

Every character created by Martel is unique and a lot different from one another for the reason that they all justify that looks can be deceiving, and every character and idea in this book is not what it looks to be. There is a well thought of plan behind it. This book can be mistaken as talking about existentialism, but is more about freedom and liberation. It helps us to encounter our animal instincts, acknowledge them, and live with our lives. I had mixed feeling when I started the book, sometimes I got lost deciphering the codes that the author has given to us. Life of Pi can be the story about my life not in the graphical sense but in the emotional self. I too have felt alone, lonely, deceived, hunted, envied, etc. With each emotion that Pi encountered, I was able to recognize that emotion within. I fell in love with the book as soon as I completed the first 10 pages; I knew this book would help me in transforming my point of view on life. It helped me to tame the wild and it’s ok to be scared at times. Also, sometimes it’s all in the name.


Martel, Yann. 2002, Life of Pi. Canada: Vintage.

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