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Life of Pi (Martel)

Life of Pi
Yann Martel, 2002
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
348 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780156030205


Summary 
Winner of the 2002 Man Booker Award

Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.

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Growing up in Pondicherry, India, Piscine Molitor Patel—known as Pi—has a rich life. Bookish by nature, young Pi acquires a broad knowledge of not only the great religious texts but of all literature, and has a great curiosity about how the world works. His family runs the local zoo, and he spends many of his days among goats, hippos, swans, and bears, developing his own theories about the nature of animals and how human nature conforms to it. Pi’s family life is quite happy, even though his brother picks on him and his parents aren’t quite sure how to accept his decision to simultaneously embrace and practise three religions—Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

But despite the lush and nurturing variety of Pi’s world, there are broad political changes afoot in India, and when Pi is sixteen his parents decide that the family needs to escape to a better life. Choosing to move to Canada, they close the zoo, pack their belongings, and board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum. Travelling with them are many of their animals, bound for zoos in North America. However, they have only just begun their journey when the ship sinks, taking the dreams of the Patel family down with it. Only Pi survives, cast adrift in a lifeboat with the unlikeliest oftravelling companions: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Thus begins Pi Patel’s epic, 227-day voyage across the Pacific, and the powerful story of faith and survival at the heart of Life of Pi. Worn and scared, oscillating between hope and despair, Pi is witness to the playing out of the food chain, quite aware of his new position within it. When only the tiger is left of the seafaring menagerie, Pi realizes that his survival depends on his ability to assert his own will, and sets upon a grand and ordered scheme to keep from being Richard Parker’s next meal.

As the days pass, Pi fights both boredom and terror by throwing himself into the practical details of surviving on the open sea—catching fish, collecting rain water, protecting himself from the sun—all the while ensuring that the tiger is also kept alive, and knows that Pi is the key to his survival. The castaways face gruelling pain in their brushes with starvation, illness, and the storms that lash the small boat, but there is also the solace of beauty: the rainbow hues of a dorado’s death-throes, the peaceful eye of a looming whale, the shimmering blues of the ocean’s swells. Hope is fleeting, however, and despite adapting his religious practices to his daily routine, Pi feels the constant, pressing weight of despair. It is during the most hopeless and gruelling days of his voyage that Pi whittles to the core of his beliefs, casts off his own assumptions, and faces his underlying terrors head-on.

As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material—any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and centre from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—June 25, 1963
Where—Salamanca, Spain
Education—B.A., Trent University, Ontario
Awards—Booker Prize, 2002; Hugh MacLennan Prize, 
  Quebec Writers’ Federation
Currently—Montreal, Quebec, Canada


Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963 of peripatetic Canadian parents. He grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico, and has continued travelling as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India. Martel refers to his travels as, “seeing the same play on a whole lot of different stages.”

After studying philosophy at Trent University and while doing various odd jobs—tree planting, dishwashing, working as a security guard—he began to write. In addition to Life of Pi, Martel is the prize-winning author of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short stories, and of Self, a novel, both published internationally. Yann has been living from his writing since the age of 27. He divides his time between yoga, writing and volunteering in a palliative care unit. Yann Martel lives in Montreal.

More
Sometime in the early 1990s, Yann Martel stumbled across a critique in the New York Times Review of Books by John Updike that captured his curiosity. Although Updike's response to Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats was fairly icy and indifferent, the premise immediately intrigued Martel. According to Martel, Max and the Cats was, "as far as I can remember...about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther." Whether or not the story was as uninspiring as Updike had indicated in his review, Martel was both fascinated by this premise and frustrated that he had not come up with it himself.

Ironically, Martel's account of the plot of Max and the Cats wasn't completely accurate. In fact, in Scliar's novel, Max Schmidt did not belong to a family of zookeepers—he was the son of furrier. Furthermore, he did not emigrate from Berlin to Brazil with his family as the result of a failing zoo, but was forced to flee Hamburg after his lover's husband sells him out to the Nazi secret police. So, this plot that so enthralled Martel—which he did not pursue for several years because he assumed Moacyr Scliar had already tackled it—was more his own than he had thought.

Meanwhile, Martel managed to write and publish two books: a collection of short stories titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios in 1993 and a novel about gender confusion called Self in 1996. Both books sold only moderately well, further frustrating the writer. In an effort to collect his thoughts and refresh his creativity, he took a trip to India, first spending time in bustling Bombay. However, the overcrowded city only furthered Martel's feelings of alienation and dissolution. He then decided to move on to Matheran, a section near Bombay but without that city's dense population. In this peaceful hill station overlooking the city, Martel began revisiting an idea he had not considered in some time, the premise he had unwittingly created when reading Updike's review in the New York Times Review of Books. He developed the idea even further away from Max and the Cats. While Scliar's novel was an extended holocaust allegory, Martel envisioned his story as a witty, whimsical, and mysterious meditation on zoology and theology. Unlike Max Schmidt, Pi Patel would, indeed, be the son of a zookeeper. Martel would, however, retain the shipwrecked-with-beasts theme from Max and the Cats. During an ocean exodus from India to Canada, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with such unlikely shipmates as a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The resulting novel, Life of Pi, became the smash-hit for which Martel had been longing. Selling well over a million copies and receiving the accolades of Book Magazine, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and, yes, the New York Times Review of Books, Life of Pi has been published in over 40 countries and territories, in over 30 languages. It is currently in production by Fox Studios with a script by master-of-whimsy Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children; Amélie) and directorial duties to be handled by Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

Martel is now working on his third novel, a bizarrely allegorical adventure about a donkey and a monkey that travel through a fantastical world...on a shirt. Well, at least no one will ever accuse him of borrowing that premise from any other writer.

Extras
From a 2002 Barnes & Noble interview:

Life of Pi is not Yann Martel's first work to be adapted for the screen. His short story "Manners of Dying" was made into a motion picture by fellow Canadian resident Jeremy Peter Allen in 2004.

• When he isn't penning modern masterpieces, Martel spends much of his time volunteering in a palliative care unit.

• When asked what book was most influential to his career as a writer, here's what he said: 

I would say Le Petit Chose, by the French writer Alphonse Daudet. It was the first book to make me cry. I was around ten years old. It made me see how powerful words could be, how much we could see and feel through mere black jottings on a page. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
Yann Martel is a superb storyteller, and he has fashioned a fable: a metaphysical exploration into our relationship with the cosmos and the divine.
A LitLovers LitPick  (May '07)


Pi is Martel's triumph. He is understated and ironic, utterly believable and pure. The whole fantastic voyage carries hints of The Old Man and The Sea. The playfulness adds another layer to an already strong story.
Globe and Mail


If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic, funny and convert all the non-believers. He baits his readers with serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion, but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled, that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't help but be captured by his prose.
Charlotte Innes - The Nation


An impassioned defense of zoos, a death-defying trans-Pacific sea adventure à la "Kon-Tiki," and a hilarious shaggy-dog story starring a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker: this audacious novel manages to be all of these as it tells the improbable survivor's tale of Pi Patel, a young Indian fellow named for a swimming pool (his full first name is Piscine) who endures seven months in a lifeboat with only a hungry, outsized feline for company. This breezily aphoristic, unapologetically twee saga of man and cat is a convincing hands-on, how-to guide for dealing with what Pi calls, with typically understated brio, "major lifeboat pests."
The New Yorker


There are echoes in his work of Latin American magic realism (reminiscent of García Márquez and Borges) and touches of absurdist mind games. A cross-cultural feast, the book ranges from India to North America; it's also packed with curious disquisitions on philosophy, zoology, linguistics and God. But in the end, it's the story you'll remember, the kind of twist-and-turns spellbinder that's almost impossible to forget.
Book Magazine


A fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing and resilient, this novel is an impressive achievement "a story that will make you believe in God," as one character says. The peripatetic Pi (n the much-taunted Piscine) Patel spends a beguiling boyhood in Pondicherry, India, as the son of a zookeeper. Growing up beside the wild beasts, Pi gathers an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal world. His curious mind also makes the leap from his native Hinduism to Christianity and Islam, all three of which he practices with joyous abandon. In his 16th year, Pi sets sail with his family and some of their menagerie to start a new life in Canada. Halfway to Midway Island, the ship sinks into the Pacific, leaving Pi stranded on a life raft with a hyena, an orangutan, an injured zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. After the beast dispatches the others, Pi is left to survive for 227 days with his large feline companion on the 26-foot-long raft, using all his knowledge, wits and faith to keep himself alive. The scenes flow together effortlessly, and the sharp observations of the young narrator keep the tale brisk and engaging. Martel's potentially unbelievable plot line soon demolishes the reader's defenses, cleverly set up by events of young Pi's life that almost naturally lead to his biggest ordeal. This richly patterned work, Martel's second novel, won Canada's 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. In it, Martel displays the clever voice and tremendous storytelling skills of an emerging master.
Publishers Weekly


Named for a swimming pool in Paris the Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel begins this extraordinary tale as a teenager in India, where his father is a zoo keeper. Deciding to immigrate to Canada, his father sells off most of the zoo animals, electing to bring a few along with the family on their voyage to their new home. But after only a few days out at sea, their rickety vessel encounters a storm. After crew members toss Pi overboard into one of the lifeboats, the ship capsizes. Not long after, to his horror, Pi is joined by Richard Parker, an acquaintance who manages to hoist himself onto the lifeboat from the roiling sea. You would think anyone in Pi's dire straits would welcome the company, but Richard Parker happens to be a 450-pound Bengal tiger. It is hard to imagine a fate more desperate than Pi's: "I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me." At first Pi plots to kill Richard Parker. Then he becomes convinced that the tiger's survival is absolutely essential to his own. In this harrowing yet inspiring tale, Martel demonstrates skills so well honed that the story appears to tell itself without drawing attention to the writing. This second novel by the Spanish-born, award-winning author of Self, who now lives in Canada, is highly recommended for all fiction as well as animal and adventure collections. — Edward Cone, New York
Library Journal


A fable about the consolatory and strengthening powers of religion flounders about somewhere inside this unconventional coming-of-age tale, which was shortlisted for Canada's Governor General's Award. The story is told in retrospect by Piscine Molitor Patel (named for a swimming pool, thereafter fortuitously nicknamed "Pi"), years after he was shipwrecked when his parents, who owned a zoo in India, were attempting to emigrate, with their menagerie, to Canada. During 227 days at sea spent in a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger (mostly with the latter, which had efficiently slaughtered its fellow beasts), Pi found serenity and courage in his faith: a frequently reiterated amalgam of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian beliefs. The story of his later life, education, and mission rounds out, but does not improve upon, the alternately suspenseful and whimsical account of Pi's ordeal at sea—which offers the best reason for reading this otherwise preachy and somewhat redundant story of his Life.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. In his introductory note 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?

2. Pondicherry is described as an anomaly, the former capital of what was once French India. Do you think the town made a significant difference in Pi's upbringing?

3. In the Author's Note, Mr. Adirubasamy boldly claims that this story "will make you belive in God," and the author, after researching and writing the story, agrees. Did Pi's tale alter your beliefs about God?

4. Chapters 21 and 22 are very short, yet the author has said that they are at the core of the novel. Can you see how?

5. Early in the novel, we discover that Pi majored in religious studies and zoology, with particular interests in a sixteenth-century Kabbalist and the admirable three-toed sloth. In subsequent chapters, he explains the ways in which religions and zoos are both steeped in illusion. Discuss some of the other ways in which these two fields find unlikely compatibility.

6. In the Author's Note, Martel wonders whether fiction is "the selective transforming of reality, the twisting of it to bring out its essence." If this is so, what is the essence of Pi and of his story?

7. There is a lot of storytelling in this religious novel. Is there a relationship between religion and storytelling?Is religion a form of storytelling? Is there a theological dimension to storytelling?

8. Pi's full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, was inspired by a Parisian swimming pool that "the gods would have delighted to swim in." The shortened form refers to the ratio of a circle's circumference divided by its diameter, the number 3.1415926..., a number that goes on forever without discernable pattern, what in mathematics is called an irrational number. Explore the significance of Pi's unusual name.

9. One reviewer said the novel contains hints of The Old Man and the Sea, and Pi himself measures his experience in relation to history's most famous castaways. How does Life of Pi compare to other maritime novels and films?

10. How might the novel's flavor have been changed if the sole surviving animal had been the zebra with the broken leg? Or Orange Juice? Or the hyena? Would Pi have survived with a harmless animal or an ugly animal, say a sheep or a turkey? Which animal would you like to find yourself with on a lifeboat?

11. In chapter 23, Pi sparks a lively debate when all three of his spiritual advisors try to claim him. At the heart of this confrontation is Pi's insistence that he cannot accept an exclusively Hindu, Christian, or Muslim faith; he can only be content with all three. What is Pi seeking that can solely be attained by this apparent contradiction? Is there something commmon to all religions? Are they "all the same"? If not, how are they different? Is there a difference between faith and belief?

12. What do you make of Pi's assertion at the beginning of chapter 16 that we are all "in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God"? Do you believe that Pi's faith is a response to his father's agnosticism?

13. Among Yann Martel's gifts is a rich descriptive palette. Regarding religion, he observes the green elements that represent Islam and the orange tones of Hinduism. What color would Christianity be, according to Pi's perspective?

14. How do the human beings in your world reflect the animal behavior observed by Pi? What do Pi's strategies for dealing with Richard Parker teach us about confronting the fearsome creatures in our lives?

15. Besides the loss of his family and possessions, what else did Pi lose when the Tsimtsum sank? What did he gain?

16. Nearly everyone experiences a turning point that represents the transition from youth to adulthood, albeit seldom as traumatic as Pi's. What event marked your coming of age?

17. How do Mr. Patel's zookeeping abilities compare to his parenting skills? Discuss the scene in which his tries to teach his children a lesson in survival by arranging for them to watch a tiger devour a goat. Did this in any way prepare Pi for the most dangerous experience of his life?

18. If shock hadn't deluded him, do you think Pi would have whistled and waved at Richard Parker? What would you have done?

19. Pi imagines that his brother would have teasingly called him Noah. How does Pi's voyage compare to the biblical story of Noah, who was spared from the flood while God washed away the sinners?

20. Is Life of Pi a tragedy, romance, or comedy?

21. Pi defends zoos. Are you convinced? Is a zoo a good place for a wild animal?

22. What did you think of Pi's interview with the investigators from the Japanese Ministry of Transport? Do you think Pi's mother, along with a sailor and a cannibalistic cook, were in the lifeboat with him instead of the animals? Which story do you believe, the one with animals or the one without animals? When the investigators state that they think the story with animals is the better story, Pi answers "Thank you. And so it goes with God." What do you think Pi meant by that? How does it relate to the claim that this is a story "that will make you believe in God"?

23. The first part of the novel starts twenty years after Pi's ordeal at sea and ends with the words "This story has a happy ending." Do you agree?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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