The book “Life of Pi” by Canadian writer Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Booker Prize narrates delightfully, the story of Piscine Patel, who shortens his name to Pi. An elderly man in Pondicherry, India, tells the author that he has a story that can make him believe in God. So doing, the author moves into the narration of a postmodern novel with stories set within the main story. The bulk of the book concerns the 227 days Pi spends adrift in the Pacific Ocean after the Japanese freighter carrying his family and many zoo animals sinks. He is the lone human survivor on a 26-foot lifeboat, which he shares with a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, a seasick orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon only Pi and the tiger remain, and Pi must find a way to survive not only hunger, the elements and shark-infested waters but also the constant fear that Richard Parker will make him his lunch. Martel carries off this section with aplomb. He combines dramatic episodes, scientific knowledge, well-written hallucinatory passages, humor and gruesome detail to move the story along. Since the entire book is told in flashback, the reader already knows how things will turn out, yet there is a lot of suspense.
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Life if Pi is not strictly a fantasy novel. It straddles the subgenres of utopia and contemporary narrative mode of animal fable (Armitt 40). It is set in real locations and told in documentary style with no reference to dreams, madness or hallucinations. The book also has characteristics of magic realism. While the story is anchored in historic reality, the plot itself is the stuff of biblical myths and the realism is mixed in with elements of the fantastic (Guignery 161). The writing style of Yann Martel is simple and has a smooth flow. He allows the narrative voice and the intriguing plot move the reader even as he laces the path with many kinds of metaphysical questions that have perplexed humans over the years. Martel is also very descriptive. He masterfully describes an impending storm. “Light on pandemonium it was. Nature can put on a thrilling show. The stage is vast, the lighting is dramatic, the extras are innumerable, and the budget for special effects is absolutely unlimited. What I had before me was a spectacle of wind and water, an earthquake of the senses that even Hollywood couldn’t orchestrate… The ship was sinking. My mind could hardly conceive it. It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire.” The story may not make the readers believe in God, but it certainly helps them enjoy asking whether they should. His style is easy to follow and the book is very informative on a large number of topics.
The plot takes the reader from the picturesque esplanades of Pondicherry to the middle of the raging Pacific amidst flying fish, maco sharks and sea storms. Pi, son of a zoo owner lives in Pondicherry. In a search to be closer to God, Pi accepts and imbibes multiple religions. When confronted with the Pundit, Imam, and the Priest simultaneously and asked to choose one religion, Pi replies simply – “I just want to love God”. He prays to Jesus, Allah, Mary, Vishnu. All. At age 16, he is forced to emigrate to Canada with his parents along with the zoo. On the way, in mid Pacific, a storm sinks the cargo ship.
Pi loses his parents and elder brother Ravi. He survives on a lifeboat along with a zebra with a broken leg, a terminally disgusting hyena, an adult female orangutan that was once his pet and a testy untrustworthy royal Bengal tiger. The hyena kills the zebra, and the orangutan, and subsequently gets killed by the tiger. Pi is left alone with the tiger on board. The Life of Pi becomes a fight for survival as Pi devises ways and means to sustain himself against huge odds. He spends 227 days with a Royal Bengal Tiger amidst shark infested Pacific waters with slim chances of being rescued. To survive, Pi has to tame the tiger and psychologically bully it into accepting him as the master. Pi lists down nine points to tame any wild animal and follows them scrupulously till Richard Parker, the tiger is tame. He becomes the supplier of fresh water and food to Richard Parker, makes himself the alpha-male and tames the tiger. A steadfast vegetarian, Pi soon goes down the food chain and starts eating raw fishes and turtles.
One of the major assets in this book is the description of animals. Yann Martel will startles the reader with an account of a hyena satisfying its hunger. The eighth chapter, in which a father tells his son about dangerous animals in the zoo, is highly informative from a zoological point of view. It is amazing the way Martel presents scientific facts on animal behavior and psychology in a light manner. Secondly, the book holds a noble theme – one of accepting and living with many religions in a multicultural world. Pi’s philosophy of life was to live in harmony amidst diversity.
Pi reasons in his typically idiosyncratic way, “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.” When he observes how Muslims pray, he says, “Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise… Hot-weather yoga for Bedouins.” His naiveté can be silly, but ultimately it’s an open-mindedness that makes the book thought provoking. The story is action packed and racy. There are many fascinating survival scenes, as when Pi and Richard Parker meet a school of flying fish: “They came like a swarm of locusts”. Pi attempts to catch the fish for food; the tiger is better at it: “Many were eaten live and whole, struggling wings beating in his mouth… It was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment.”
The novel is not without its drawbacks. Some parts are totally unbelievable – especially the parts where Pi is in a delirium, or the part where he lands up on a carnivore island seem to be too far-fetched; but then so is being stranded in the middle of Pacific with a Royal Bengal Tiger. Another drawback in the book is that Martel chooses to base his closing argument upon a throwaway line from a news report. This seems very flimsy. Again his rendering of interreligious dialogue is myopic as is most evident in the meeting between Pi’s religious teachers early in the novel. It seems that Martel playfully takes individual religious aspects from various religions and arranges them according to his own personal spiritual aspirations in the name of syncretism. Dr. Tinu Ruparell (2) points out that Martel’s God is more like a fictional character and his religion is like a story.
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Despite the drawbacks and the fact that a major portion of the book deals with survival from the sea, Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” is not just an adventure story. It is more an account of human-animal equations, a plea for the cause of religious tolerance, a search for universal truth and harmony, an exploration of family life, a thriller, a spiritual quest, part fiction and part philosophy.
Ruparell, Tinu Dr. (2004). Reflections on Life of Pi. Calgary Zoo Publication. 2004.
Armitt, Lucie (2005). Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. Continuum International Publishing Group. 2005.
Guignery, Vanessa (2007). Pre and Post-publication Itineraries of the Contemporary Novel in English. Editions Publibook. 2007.
Martel, Yann (2002). Life of Pi. Vintage Canada Publication. 2002.