Life of Pi
Life of Pi cover
|Original title||Life of Pi|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-676-97376-0 (first edition, hardcover)|
|Followed by||We Ate the Children Last|
Life of Pi is a Canadian fantasy 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 lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The novel, which has sold more than ten million copies worldwide, was rejected by at least five London publishing houses before being accepted by Knopf Canada, which published it in September 2001. The UK edition won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year. It was also chosen for CBC Radio's Canada Reads 2003, where it was championed by author Nancy Lee. The French translation, L'Histoire de Pi, was chosen in the French CBC version of the contest Le combat des livres, where it was championed by Louise Forestier. The novel won the 2003 Boeke Prize, a South African novel award. In 2004, it won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Best Adult Fiction for years 2001–2003. In 2012 it was adapted into a theatrical feature film directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay by David Magee.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Major themes
- 3 Inspiration
- 4 Narrative structure
- 5 Setting
- 6 Characters
- 7 Reception
- 8 Adaptations
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
The author's note is an integral part of the novel. Unusually, the note describes entirely fictional events. It serves to establish and enforce one of the novel's main themes: the relativity of truth.
Life of Pi is subdivided into three sections. In the first section the main character Pi Patel, an adult Canadian, reminisces about his childhood in India. His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry. The livelihood provides the family with a relatively affluent lifestyle and some understanding of animal psychology. Pi describes how he acquired his full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, as a tribute to the swimming pool in France. After hearing schoolmates tease him by transforming the first name into "Pissing", he establishes the short form of his name as "Pi" when he starts secondary school. The name, he says, pays tribute to the irrational number which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. In describing his experiences Pi describes several other unusual situations involving proper names. Two visitors to the zoo, one a devout Muslim and one a committed atheist, bear identical names. A memorably ferocious tiger at the zoo bears the name Richard Parker as the result of a clerical error in which human and animal names were reversed.
Pi is raised a Hindu who practices vegetarianism. As a fourteen-year-old he investigates Christianity and Islam and decides to become an adherent of all three religions, saying 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.
Shifting government policies led to a decision by Pi's father to sell the zoo and emigrate with his wife and two sons to Canada. The second part of the novel begins with Pi's family aboard the Tsimtsum, the Japanese freighter that is transporting animals from their zoo to North America. A few days out of port from Manila, the ship encounters a storm and sinks. Pi manages to escape in a small lifeboat, only to learn that the boat also holds a spotted hyena, an injured Grant's zebra, and an orangutan. To Pi's distress, the hyena soon kills the zebra and then the orangutan. At this point Pi learns that a 450-pound Bengal tiger has been hiding under the boat's tarpaulin: Richard Parker, who had boarded the lifeboat with ambivalent assistance from Pi himself. The tiger kills and eats the hyena.
Frightened, Pi constructs a small raft out of rescue flotation devices, tethers it to the stern of the boat and retreats to it. He begins conditioning Richard Parker to take a submissive role by using food as a positive reinforcer and seasickness as a punishment mechanism while using a whistle for signals. Pi asserts himself as the alpha animal and is eventually able to share the boat with Richard Parker.
Pi recounts various events while adrift in the Pacific Ocean. At his lowest point, exposure renders him blind, feeble and unable to catch fish. In a state of delirium he talks with a marine "echo" that he eventually identifies as Richard Parker finally speaking up. Later Pi's boat comes ashore on a floating island network of algae and inhabited by meerkats. Pi gains strength but his discovery that the island's plant life is carnivorous forces him to return to the boat. Two hundred and twenty-seven days after the ship's sinking, the lifeboat washes onto a beach in Mexico. Richard Parker disappears into the nearby jungle without a glance back.
The third part of the novel describes a conversation between Pi and two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport who are conducting an inquiry into the shipwreck. They meet him at the hospital in Mexico where he is recovering. Pi tells them his tale but the officials reject it as unbelievable. Pi then offers them a second story in which he is adrift on a lifeboat not with zoo animals, but with the ship's cook, a Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg, and his own mother. The cook amputates the sailor's leg for use as fishing bait, then kills the sailor and Pi's mother for food. Pi then kills the cook and dines on him.
The officials note parallels between the two stories and conclude that the hyena symbolizes the cook, the zebra the sailor, the orangutan Pi's mother, and the tiger Pi. Pi points out that neither story can be proven and neither explains the cause of the shipwreck. He asks the officials which story they prefer. They choose the story with the animals. Pi thanks them and says "And so it goes with God."
Life is a story
Life of Pi, according to Yann Martel, can be summarized in three statements- "Life is a story... You can choose your story... A story with God is the better story." A recurring theme throughout the novel seems to be believability. Pi at the end of the book asks the two investigators "If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for?" According to Gordon Houser there are two main themes of the book: "that all life is interdependent, and that we live and breathe via belief."
Growth through adversity
PBS has described Martel's story as one of "personal growth through adversity." The main character learns that "tigers are dangerous" at a young age when his father forces him to watch the zoo's Royal Bengal tiger patriarch, Mahisha, devour a live goat. Later, after he has been reduced to eking out a desperate existence on the lifeboat with the company of a fully grown tiger, Pi develops "alpha" qualities as he musters the strength, will and skills he needs to survive.
In a 2002 interview with PBS, Martel said "I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small 's' but sort of with a capital 'S' – something that would direct my life." He spoke of being lonely and needing direction in his life, and found that writing the novel met this need.
Richard Parker and shipwreck narratives
The name of Martel's tiger, Richard Parker, was inspired by a character in Edgar Allan Poe's nautical adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). The author also had in mind other occurrences of the name, including in at least two tales of shipwreck and resulting cannibalism.
Shipwreck survival tales were not uncommon in the 18th and 19th centuries. Examples include the following:
- In December 1835, the ship Francis Spaight was wrecked in the north Atlantic. Survivors of the wreck resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.
- In January 1846, a second ship named Francis Spaight sank, and took a man named Richard Parker down with it.
- In 1884, 46 years after Poe's novel was published, a shipwreck occurred with circumstances that were similar to those in his book. After the sinking of their yacht Mignonette on the way to Australia, Captain Tom Dudley and three sailors were stranded in a dinghy in the Pacific Ocean. They believed they had no choice but to eat one of the party to survive. The victim was a 17-year-old cabin boy named Richard Parker.
Martel has mentioned that a book review he read of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella Max and the Cats accounts in part for his novel's premise. Scliar's story describes a Jewish-German refugee crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a jaguar in his boat. Scliar said that he was perplexed that Martel "used the idea without consulting or even informing me," and indicated that he was reviewing the situation before deciding whether to take any action in response. After talking with Martel, Scliar elected not to pursue the matter. A dedication to Scliar "for the spark of life" appears in the author's note of Life of Pi. Literary reviews have described the similarities between Life of Pi and Max and the Cats as superficial. Reviewer Peter Yan wrote: "Reading the two books side-by-side, one realizes how inadequate bald plot summaries are in conveying the unique imaginative impact of each book," and noted that Martel's distinctive narrative structure is not found in Scliar's novella. The themes of the books are also dissimilar, with Max and the Cats being an allegory for Nazism. In Life of Pi, 211 of 354 pages are devoted to Pi's experience in the lifeboat, compared to Max and the Cats, in which 17 of its 99 pages depict time spent in a lifeboat.
According to the reviewer Peter Yan,
'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" (Martel 101) 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.
The novel is a work of fiction set in the summer of 1977 that draws on places and historical events in India. The Patel Family's discussions of the political situation refer to historical events. Pondicherry is a former French colony in India. It does have an Indian Coffee House and Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Garden currently has a toy train track and a small aquarium, but it does not have a zoo. It had a zoo in 1977 but did not have any animals bigger than a deer. Munnar, the destination for the Patel family's vacation, is a small but popular hill station in Kerala. Madurai, also referenced in the novel, is a popular tourist and pilgrimage site in Tamil Nadu.
Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel
Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as just "Pi", is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. He was named after a swimming pool in Paris, despite the fact that neither his mother nor his father particularly liked swimming. The story is told as a narrative from the perspective of a middle-aged Pi, now married 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.
Richard Parker is a Bengal tiger that is stranded on the lifeboat with Pi when the ship sinks. Richard Parker lives on the lifeboat with Pi and is kept alive with the food and water Pi delivers. Richard Parker develops a relationship with Pi that allows them to coexist in their struggle.
In the novel, a hunter named Richard Parker is hired to kill a panther thought to have killed seven people within two months. Instead he immobilizes a female Bengal tiger with tranquilizer darts while her cub escapes to hide in a bush. Parker names the cub Thirsty after its enthusiasm when drinking from a nearby river. The paperwork that accompanies the shipment of the two tigers to Pi's family's zoo in Pondicherry states that the cub's name is "Richard Parker" and the hunter's given name is "Thirsty" and his surname is "None Given". Pi and his father find the story so amusing that they continue to call the tiger "Richard Parker".
Brian Bethune of Maclean's describes Life of Pi as "[a] head-scratching combination of dense religious allegory, zoological lore and enthralling adventure tale, written with warmth and grace". Master Plots suggested the "[c]entral themes of Life of Pi concern religion and human faith in God". Reutter said "So believable is Pi's story telling that readers will be amazed." Stephens added that it "achieves something more quietly spectacular." Smith contradicted them both by saying that there was "no bamboozlement [t]here."
Stephens summarized Life of Pi as a "story about a sixteen year-old polytheist who survives 227 days (7 1/2 months) on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger."
In October 2005, a worldwide competition was launched to find an artist to illustrate Life of Pi. The competition was run by Scottish publisher Canongate Books and UK newspaper The Times, as well as Australian newspaper The Age and Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac was chosen as the illustrator for the new edition, which was published in September 2007.
A 2012 adaptation directed by Ang Lee and based on an adapted screenplay by David Magee was given a wide release in the United States on 21 November 2012. At the 85th Academy Awards it won four awards from eleven nominations, including Best Director.
This novel has also been adapted as a play by Keith Robinson, artistic director of the youth-oriented Twisting Yarn Theatre Company. Andy Rashleigh wrote the adaptation, which was directed by Keith Robinson. The premier/original cast contained only six actors—Tony Hasnath (Pi), Taresh Solanki (Richard Parker), Melody Brown (Mother), Conor Alexander (Father), Sanjay Shalat (Brother) and Mark Pearce (Uncle). The play was produced at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, England, in 2003. The company toured England and Ireland with the play in 2004 and 2007.
Keith Robinson also directed a second version of the play. He brought some of his company to work with students of the BA (Hons) Drama, Applied Theatre and Education Course at the Central School of Speech and Drama. The joint production was performed at the Minack Theatre, in Cornwall, England, in late June 2008. It was well received by the press and community.
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