The following is what actually happens in the actual book Life of Pi, written by the actual author Yann Martel:
A sixteen-year-old boy is in a shipwreck, ends up in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger. He travels halfway across the Pacific, only making a pit-stop on a floating island of algae populated only by meerkats.
Yeah. That's a synopsis, not the set-up for a long joke.
We repeat: that's what actually goes down in this actual winner of the actual Booker Prize. The novel went on to sell over three million actual copies. Ang Lee directed an actual film version, which went on to win four actual Academy Awards and gross over $609 million actual dollars.
We'd call it a Cinderella story, except the plot of Life of Pi is way more bonkers than the story of a girl with small feet who gets married to a prince.
Because this book is several stories thrown together in a blender. Its magical realism brings to mind the best of Garcia Marquez. It's an adventure tale worthy of Defoe. Its religious commentary reminds readers of The Chronicles of Narnia.
But we'd be remiss if we didn't bring up another book that sounds a whole lot like Life of Pi—Max and the Cats.
When Life of Pi won the Booker in 2002, Yann Martel himself wrapped up in an unexpected controversy...because the Life of Pi re-imagines the plot of Moacyr Scliar's 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 defenders of Brazilian literature—and of what some saw as literary integrity—cried plagiarism.
And 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). Martel also confesses he read a review of Scliar's novel, and that its basic story—a boy and an animal trapped on a boat together—never left him.
This controversy also highlights an important aspect of Martel's novel, because Life of Pi is a work that celebrates and revels in borrowing from preexisting tales and stretching memory into fantasy. It consciously weaves together stories, perspectives, science, and religions. Depending on your perspective, the charges of plagiarism were either justified or deliciously ironic, considering that Life of Pi is a book that celebrates the fusion that comes from the exchange of ideas.
Life of Pi has a scene where a tiger fights a shark. What more could you want?
No really. Would you want magical realism—say, a magical floating island populated with meercats? Would you want a disaster—say, a sinking ship? Or perhaps you want a slice-of-life Bildungsroman—for example, a boy growing up in 1970's India?
Hey: how about some bighearted-yet-scholarly insight into major world religions?
Good news, guys. Life of Pi has all of this.
When Yann Martel won the Booker Prize for his genre-defying novel, chair of judges Lisa Jardine said that Life of Pi would "make you believe in God." (Source) We're not 100% positive about that claim, but we do think that if any book can do it, it might just be this one. Protagonist Pi is a pan-theist with a huge heart who ecstatically follows three religions by the time he's sixteen years old. He's irrepressible when it comes to faith: he loves the rituals, the stories, the ceremonies, the philosophy...and he loves to worship.
In fact, when he has the super-bad luck of running into his priest, imam, and pandit all at the same time (thereby being outed as being a practicing Christian, Muslim, and Hindu) he has this to say in his defense:
"Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.' I just want to love God." (1.23.49-54)
What a dude, huh? Pi manages, in the course of Life of Pi, not only to tame a wild tiger, but to preach love and tolerance. The message that Pi wants to get out is the same as Gandhi's: all religions are true. (Pi even extends this to atheism, because he's open-minded like that.)
So while this novel manages to harmoniously be an adventure tale, Postmodern thought experiment, Bildungsroman, and work of magical realism, we think it's most important as a novel of religion. Just like seemingly-conflicting genres can coexist peacefully within Life of Pi, seemingly-conflicting religions can exist within Pi's life.
And we think that's even cooler than a tiger fighting a shark.
Yann Martel Bio
A brief biography of Martel from The Canadian Encyclopedia.
University of Toronto Religious Studies Page
In case you want to study Religion like your hero Pi.
University of Toronto Zoology Page
In case you want to study Zoology like your hero Pi.
He's on a Boat
Tobey Maguire as Pi? Yes, please.
"How I Wrote Life of Pi"
The definitive and controversial essay by Yann Martel.
"May Richard Parker Always Be at Your Side"
Things get tense in this Guardian Q&A with Yann Martel.
Yann Martel Interview with Jennie Renton
Yann Martel reveals why he chose the title.
"Conversation: Life of Pi" by Ray Suarez
A 2002 NewsHour interview with Yann Martel.
"Credulity" by James Wood
Excellent review by the eminent James Wood in the London Review of Books.
"Everything is Best" by Phoebe Kate Foster
Zen koans, Kierkegaard, Einstein – it's all here in the PopMatters review of the novel.
"Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat: A Furor Over a Novel" by Larry Rohter
The plagiarism controversy. Includes some details on Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novel.
Surviving 289 Days at Sea? For Real?
A 2007 article on three men who claim to have survived 289 days stranded at sea (that's longer than Pi!). Here's the tagline for the story: "They claim to have survived for 289 days at sea, but, four months on, the awe-inspiring tale of the Mexican fishermen looks less like a miracle and more like an elaborate hoax." Check out how this story brings religion into the mix. What would Pi think?
Mojo.com Interview with Martel
Wide-ranging interview. Very stylish.
The Standard Interviews Martel
Generous interview in three parts.
Readings and Discussion Panels
Yann Martel reads from Life of Pi and discusses the book at the 2003 Prague Writers' Festival. Six clips.
Interview with Yann Martel
Terrific, illuminating interview with Martel on Life of Pi.
Radio Praha Interview with Yann Martel
Some jaunty intro music. From the Prague Writers' Festival.
Selections from Life of Pi: Deluxe Illustrated Edition
Eleven illustrations from Tomislav Torjanac's collaboration with Yann Martel.
Gandhi Statue in Pondicherry, India
On the shore in Pondicherry.
What a Solar Still Looks Like and How It Works
Nifty things, those solar stills.
What a Sea Anchor Looks Like
And we thought it was a heavy, iron thing...