Many important authors have won the Booker Prize: V.S. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, William Golding (of Lord of the Flies fame), J.M. Coetzee, and Margaret Atwood, just to name a few. The announcement of this literary prize is a big deal. But when Life of Pi won in 2002, the media went crazy over it. Yann Martel actually found himself wrapped up in an unexpected controversy. There was name-calling. Some demanded the prize committee strip Martel of his award. A respected Brazilian author named Moacyr Scliar prepared a lawsuit. What was all the fuss about?
With the Life of Pi, Martel re-imagines the plot of Moacyr Scliar's book Max and the Cats. Martel uses an Indian boy instead of a German one, a tiger instead of a jaguar, and the Pacific Ocean instead of the Atlantic, but still... Defenders of Brazilian literature – and of what some saw as literary integrity – cried plagiarism. However, Martel admits in Life of Pi's "Author's Note" that his novel is "indebted to Mr. Moacyr Scliar, for the spark of life" (Author's Note.1.28). Also, in an essay for Powell's Books, Martel describes his encounter with Scliar's book – not through the actual novel but through a review of the novel. (Martel actually misremembers the reviewer's name and some details of Scliar's plot.) Martel also confesses he never read Scliar's novel, but that this basic story – a boy and an animal trapped on a boat together – never left him. Seven years later Yann Martel returned to Scliar's story with Life of Pi. So did Martel steal intellectual property from Moacyr Scliar? Or was this a very common event – one author influencing another – wildly misunderstood by the press?
In the end, Moacyr Scliar dropped his lawsuit. The charges of plagiarism, all along, were probably a little exaggerated. That's not to say nothing came out of the controversy. Critics asked some important questions: In works of art, where authors share ideas like the common cold, what counts as plagiarism? The controversy also highlights an important aspect of Martel's novel. Life of Pi tells the story of a boy and a tiger trapped on a lifeboat for 227 days. The novel blends together multiple stories of castaways and shipwrecks, real and fictional. Pi, the main character, believes in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. And so the novel consciously weaves together stories and perspectives into a single, nourishing story. Depending on your perspective, the charges of plagiarism were either brave and justified or deliciously ironic.
Sheesh, we're surprised you asked this question. How could you not care? Life of Pi has a scene where a tiger fights a shark. What more could you want? Sharks with laser beams attached to their heads? This book has adventure by the bucket-load. We at Shmoop turned the pages so fast that Yann Martel's novel might as well have been a flipbook. It's exciting stuff. To paraphrase one esteemed literary critic, survival stories take the most ordinary part of our lives – eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom – and elevate them to life-and-death importance (James Wood, London Review of Books). Besides, if you're ever trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and a limited supply of food and water, now you'll know exactly what to do.
Of course, Life of Pi is so much more than a mere adventure story. Yann Martel also addresses some of the most important questions of our age: How can you believe in God when Western societies seem organized around science and consumerism rather than religion? And if you do choose to believe in God, how do you guard against the twin temptations of intolerance and extremism?
If you have a taste for adventure, read on. If you ever wished for world peace, read on. In fact, if you have any interest in the engrossing questions of self-knowledge, religion, and political tolerance – and we're going to assume you do – please, read on.