Life of Pi

Yann Martel’s third novel, Life of Pi (2001), follows protagonist Piscine “Pi” Patel on a journey of survival after the cargo ship carrying him and his family sinks in the Pacific Ocean. As the lone survivor, Pi spends 227 days on a lifeboat in the company of a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The fantasy-adventure novel explores the tensions between spirituality and practicality, and between reason and imagination. It also raises questions about the nature of stories. The international bestseller gained Martel global recognition and won a number of awards and accolades, including the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. The 2012 film adaptation, written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee, grossed more than US$600 million worldwide and won four Academy Awards.

Front cover of the novel Life of Pi

Book cover by illustrator Jamie Bennett for the first edition of Life of Pi, published by Knopf Canada.

(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Background and Inspiration

Life of Pi is Yann Martel’s third novel. It was rejected by at least five London-based publishing houses before the Canadian publisher Knopf took a chance on it (Edinburgh’s Canongate published the first UK edition in 2002). In an interview with PBS, Martel shared that “the idea of a religious boy in a lifeboat with a wild animal struck me as a perfect metaphor for the human condition.” While on a trip in India, searching for a “capital ‘S’” story, he was inspired by the abundance of animals and religion he encountered.

Martel has also admitted that he was inspired by the premise of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s novella Max and the Cats (1981), about a boy stranded on a lifeboat with a jaguar. Borrowing the same premise caused some tension with Scliar after Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize. Although he was flattered, Scliar told the New York Times that Martel “used that idea without consulting me or even informing me.” Martel later recognized Scliar in his Author’s Note, thanking him for providing the “spark of life” for his novel.

Scholar Florence Stratton conducted an in-depth analysis of each book and argued against the accusation of plagiarism against Martel. In “‘Hollow at the core’: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,” she argues that Scliar’s novella is an allegory for Nazism while Martel’s novel is a narrative exploration of faith and storytelling. In addition, she points out that Scliar spends 17 out of 99 pages on the lifeboat, while Martel devotes more “narrative space to the concept” with 211 out of 354 pages.

Yann Martel

Yann Martel at the BBC World Service studio in 2010.

(courtesy BBC World Service)

Plot Synopsis: Part One

Life of Pi is divided into three parts based on location: Toronto and Pondicherry; the Pacific Ocean; and the Benito Juárez Infirmary in Tomatlán, Mexico. It begins, however, with an Author’s Note, which explains how the author came across Pi’s incredible story. The Author’s Note also frames Pi’s story as a retelling. The anonymous narrator is a separate character who only occasionally inserts himself into the story, largely to give readers a glimpse of the adult Pi’s life in Toronto. The presence of the narrator adds an element of realism to the novel, even though readers are aware that the story is a work of fiction.  

Part One begins in Pondicherry, where Pi recounts his childhood as the son of a zookeeper. He grows up closely observing the animals in the zoo and he also discovers religion. His observations of animal psychology set the groundwork for the later story. Meanwhile, Pi’s discovery of religion sets him on a spiritual path that will become an important recurring theme throughout the story. Although he was raised as a vegetarian Hindu, he explores Islam and Christianity and decides to become a Hindu, Muslim and Christian. His religious zeal concerns his parents, but the teenage Pi explains to them that “I just want to love God.”

Due to political strife in India, Pi’s parents decide to relocate the family to Canada. They sell their zoo and arrange to transfer the animals to zoos across North America. In the summer of 1977, the family, along with their animals, board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum.  


Plot Synopsis: Part Two

Part Two starts with the sinking of the cargo ship. In the middle of a fierce storm, Pi finds himself separated from his family and thrown into a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The animals attack one another until it is just Pi and Richard Parker left on the boat. Pi survives on the lifeboat’s supply of rations and water. He also constructs a raft for himself to put distance between himself and Richard Parker.

Pi ultimately decides that the only way to survive is to train the tiger to be submissive to him. Using all the knowledge he acquired from observing animals at his father’s zoo, he begins his training using a whistle and fish he catches from the ocean. To Pi’s surprise, Richard Parker’s training is successful, and he establishes his boundaries with the tiger. He has no concept of time on his long journey. At his lowest points he relies on his faith and the beauty of the sea life around him to survive.

At one point, Pi comes across another castaway. Both of them are blind due to dehydration. When the castaway tries to attack Pi, he is killed by Richard Parker. Later, Pi and Richard Parker find a floating island made of what Pi assumes to be algae and inhabited by meerkats. He soon discovers the island is carnivorous and he is forced to leave.

After 227 days at sea, Pi and Richard Parker wash up on the shores of Mexico. Pi credits Richard Parker with his survival. Keeping the tiger alive and having his company gave Pi something to live for. When Richard Parker disappears into the jungle after reaching the shore, Pi laments the lack of closure to their special relationship.

Plot Synopsis: Part Three

In Part Three, the Japanese Ministry of Transport interviews Pi to determine why the cargo ship sank. Pi shares his story with them, but they find it unbelievable. He then tells them a second story, swapping out the animals for people from the ship, including his own mother. The ministry officials recognize the similarities between the two stories and conclude that Pi symbolizes the tiger. Pi then asks which version they prefer: the story with the animals or the story with the humans. They agree the story with the animals is a better story, although the human version is more likely. However, in their final report, they praise Pi for surviving so long in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.


Themes

As a story within a story, a major theme in Life of Pi is the importance of storytelling. In this case, it is used by Pi as a tool of survival; to cope with his dire situation, he sees himself as the tiger in the story. Storytelling and imagination require suspension of disbelief, which is why Pi asks the Japanese ministry officials, “Which is the better story…?” Each story contains an element of truth, but sometimes even the truth is unbelievable.

Faith is another major theme in the story. In the beginning, the narrator is promised a story that will “make him believe in God.” Pi, a self-proclaimed Hindu, Muslim and Christian, embarks on his spiritual quest at a young age despite his parents’ disapproval. He even continues his religious practice while stranded on the lifeboat. Faith is also closely linked to storytelling, as each religion includes stories and fables that often defy belief.

In a 2005 interview with Textualities, Martel summarizes Life of Pi in three succinct points: “1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.”

Honours

In 2002, Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It was also the recipient of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in 2004. The judges praised the novel for its character development: “Martel writes with a skill that will sweep the reader into Pi's reality... Pi is built up as a character who is so human, so solid, that his faith is inspiring.”

The novel was a finalist for Canada Reads in 2003, when author Nancy Lee advocated for the book. The French translation was also selected for the French-language version of Canada Reads, Le Combat des livres, and was defended by Louise Forestier.

In 2010, US president Barack Obama sent Martel a letter of appreciation that stated: “My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book — an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling. Thank you.” Martel said of the gesture, “it blows me away.”


Film Adaptation

The success of the 2012 film adaptation of the book, written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee, took many by surprise given the film’s unknown lead actor, challenging central themes and ambiguous ending. The movie received overwhelmingly positive reviews and became an international hit. Starring Suraj Sharma as the 16-year-old Pi Patel and Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi, the film was hugely successful, grossing US$125 million in North America and $484 million internationally for a worldwide box office take of $609 million. It made numerous Top 10 of the year lists and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning four (Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score and Best Director). It also earned three Golden Globe nominations and won for Best Original Score.

The film also drew comparisons to James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) for its use of 3-D visual effects. Cameron himself stated: “Life of Pi breaks the paradigm that 3-D has to be some big, action fantasy spectacle, superhero movie.” Martel was also happy with the film version of his novel, telling the Toronto Star he was “pleased that the movie will help the book find its way to a new generation of readers, and provide some basis for comparison and discussion.” He also praised director Ang Lee for his impactful use of 3-D effects “without using them as a gimmick.” Overall, Martel has expressed that the film version raises the same questions as the novel about “truth, perception and belief.”

Theatrical Adaptation

Lifer of Pi was adapted for the stage by writer Andy Rashleigh and director Keith Robinson of the Twisting Yarn Theatre Company in Bradford, England. The play is divided into two parts, pre-shipwreck and post-shipwreck, and features a cast of six people. The play toured across the UK from 2004 to 2007 and had another run in Cornwall in 2008.

After attending the play for the first time, Martel expressed his admiration for the production, saying: “I am interested in stories and the telling of stories and that is why I wrote the novel in the first place, so to see it work in another medium — and in particular the effect it had on children — was just amazing."

In 2018, another UK-based theatre company, Sheffield Theatres, announced that it will perform a new stage adaptation of Life of Pi. The play, written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Max Webster, is set to premiere in the summer of 2019.

Awards

  • Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, Quebec Writers’ Federation (2001)
  • Man Booker Prize, Booker Prizes (2002)
  • Boeke Prize, Exclusive Books (South Africa) (2003)
  • Best Adult Fiction, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (2004)