Here's a shocking statement about a novel about a boy lost and starving at sea: parts of Life of Pi are funny.
Martel writes with a whimsical, tolerant tone consistent with Pi's outlook on life. There are even comedic set pieces, like the scene where Pi accidentally runs into his priest, rabbi, and imam all at the same time. Even at the worst of times, like when he decides to train a man-killing tiger, Pi has a joke or two to spare:
"Here it is, for your enjoyment and instruction, for your gratification and edification, the show you've been waiting for all your life, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! [...]. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, without further ado, it is my pleasure and honour to present to you: THE PI PATEL, INDO-CANADIAN, TRANS-PACIFIC, FLOATING CIRCUUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSSS! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!" (2.57.11)
The book is also gory and gross at times. Martel doesn't pull back. He describes some pretty brutal and nasty stuff with no fuss. During Pi's time at sea, he kills tons of animals, eats Richard Parker's feces, and even goes blind from malnutrition. All of this is told without the slightest fancy-pants nonsense. (Martel isn't delicate with us.) Also, don't forget about the abysmally gruesome alternate version of events told at the end.
Of course, Martel sprinkles in some fairly reflective moments amidst all this goriness. Here's one about Richard Parker, certainly a great cause of anxiety to Pi:
"It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness" (2.57.1).
Like many superb novels, Life of Pi's wide tonal range can make the reader feel like the whole world is in the novel. Really, that's not the case. Each novel tells a coherent and unique story. (The actual world may be unique, but it's not always coherent.) Life of Pi, like any other novel, tells a particular story. This one happens to be about a boy and a tiger. Since Martel makes you laugh, think, cry, and cringe you might be inclined to say it's all there.
There's no doubt that Life of Pi follows in the footsteps (or wake) of the great high-seas adventure novels. Its author, Yann Martel, spent a year and a half researching (along with religion and zoology) disaster and castaway stories (Yann Martel, "How I Wrote Life of Pi"). The book itself references many of the great adventure novelists like Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson, in addition to historical castaways.
So what happens when you blend fiction and reality? Well, it depends. If you're like Martel, and your fictions are out-of-this-world stuff about tigers and carnivorous islands made of seaweed, then you end up with Magical Realism. In Magical Realism, the author retains a basic level of realism – a lifeboat, hunger, animal instinct – but inserts fantastical elements. Like the random French castaway Pi meets near the end. Or that island with all the meerkats.
Just for kicks, Martel allows Pi to relate the "real" version of events at the end of novel. This, friends, is a very postmodern move. (We mean "postmodern" in this sense: that versions of reality (e.g. stories) have replaced reality itself.) Martel wants to stress how humans create our own "realities," as well as how religion, or fiction, often tells the more attractive story. In essence, there's no such thing as a single true story. Humans often choose the richer story. Although the richer story may not line up with the factual events, it often communicates our humanness in a way the straight facts never could.
Martel doesn't reinvent prose like James Joyce, but he still aims for some fairly lofty goals. He's taken the genre of Magical Realism and, through a real humdinger of a plot, asked his readers some tough questions. Do people believe in religion – and sometimes in fiction – because they tell a better story? A more magical story? Is there anything wrong with that? Because Martel discusses these questions at length – through, of course, Pi Patel – the book also fits neatly in the genre of philosophical literature.
The title, of course, refers to our protagonist Pi, whose full name is Piscine Molitor Patel. Pi's name has a few rich associations in the novel. For starters, there's π, the "elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe" (1.5.41). There's also the glorious Parisian swimming pool, the Piscine Molitor, which apparently made a lasting impression on Pi's uncle, Mamaji.
So far so good: a mysterious, mathematical oddity and the favorite swimming pool of Pi's spiritual and aquatic guru. We can put check marks next to most of the major themes.
It's possible you still have a few questions. For example, why isn't the book called The Life of Pi? Did Martel forget about the article ("the")? We've got you covered. Here's an answer straight from the author:
"Like 'pi', life is not finite. And so I didn't make the title The Life of Pi: I deliberately left out the definite article. That would have denoted a single life." (Jennie Renton, "Yann Martel Interview")
Pi himself might not be immortal, but his story is. In the title, Martel reminds us both of the continuity of life and the openness of Pi's story. Meaning, the story doesn't limit itself to Pi. Ideas, people, religions – anything with the spark of life – all follow, to some degree, the pattern of messiness and depravity and hope in Martel's novel.
You might find it a little odd, after pages of adventure, despair, and hope, to encounter a sort of Japanese comedy duo at the end. However, the two investigators ask Pi some important questions and, more importantly, act as liaisons between the doubtful reader and the text.
We're not sure if you experienced doubt when it came to Pi's narrative, but Martel increasingly tests the limits of his readers' faith. Maybe you grimaced before you even begin and say, "A boy and a tiger in a lifeboat? Like that could ever happen." Maybe, as Pi's survival extends to an unprecedented two hundred and twenty seven days, and he hones his skills as a shark-thrower and hawksbill connoisseur, you say, "Enough's enough. I want realism." Most readers probably raise The Eyebrow of Disbelief when Pi meets another castaway on the Pacific Ocean and discovers an island made entirely of seaweed. The Japanese investigators are right there with you. They tell Pi flat out: "We don't believe your story" (3.99.1).
Their admission gives Pi a chance to defend his tale. He links storytelling with faith. He talks about how our understanding of the world shapes the facts we share about it. He explains the danger of reason on its own. And he expresses disappointment in the investigators' expectations. (He believes they want a "a story they already know.") On a theoretical level, Pi defends himself well.
But the knockout punch happens when Pi tells an alternate version of his story. He retells the shipwreck, his survival, and his two hundred and twenty seven days at sea without the animals. In their place, he puts himself, a Taiwanese sailor, his mother, and a cook. The story is horrific.
Now for the big question: Which version do you believe? Do you think Pi, as young boy, comes up with fantastical tale to cope with an ugly truth? Or is it somehow not the point to decide what actually happened? That the beauty of the first story outweighs the believability of the second?
On the one hand, Martel spends a few hundred pages developing the first story and about seven on the second. The sheer volume, the proliferation of details, favors the first. On the other hand, the first story is also totally unlikely. We're not going to tell you which story to believe.
It's easy to forget the circumstances surrounding the Patel family's departure from Pondicherry, India. Once we're on the ocean with Pi and Richard Parker, the rest of the novel seems like backstory. And it is. But it's very important backstory. The Pondicherry zoo, religious diversity in India, and Indira Gandhi's abuses of power all inform the rest of the novel.
India in mid-1970s was a tumultuous place. Following corruption charges and criticism from opposition parties, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. Curfews, censorship, the whole nine yards. The protests against Gandhi were disrupting everyday life in India. In the novel, Gandhi's measures invade Pi's home state of Tamil Nadu (where Pondicherry is located). Gandhi severely disappoints Pi's father, who had hoped for a tolerant, new India: "
The camel at the zoo was unfazed, but that straw broke Father's back. (1.29.4)
After Gandhi overthrows the Tamil Nadu government, the family decides to move to Canada.
We get to know the lifeboat pretty well. The solar stills, benches, the tarpaulin, the sea anchor, the locker, the gaffs, and Pi's raft made of oars and life jackets. It might seem like a bad move to limit the novel to such a confined space. (You're going to spend a hundred and fifty pages on a lifeboat with one character?) Even though Pi suffers terribly on the lifeboat, he does come to terms with his suffering. The confinement actually seems to do him some spiritual good. We're reminded of an earlier musing of Pi's two favorite topics: religion and animals.
At one point Pi says,
I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both. (1.4.14)
The setting narrows further and further. Life of Pi began in the wide-open spaces of childhood – in Pi's heady exploration of science and religion. We hear more and more about Indira Gandhi and the worsening of the political situation in India. India seems totalitarian, confining. The family leaves. Finally, after the shipwreck, Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a man-killing beast. You can't get any more claustrophobic than that.
But Pi also dedicates himself to religious rituals on the boat. He cares for a creature who'd like nothing more than to eat him. He has a few spiritual insights and experiences wonder. Everything Pi learned as a boy about zoos and religion comes together in the practice of survival. And the relationship most would consider dangerous, possibly bloody, turns out to be one of true friendship. You might be able to say Pi experiences something like freedom on a twenty-six foot long boat.
Martel doesn't spend much time describing Mexico or Canada. The two Japanese investigators interview Pi during his convalescence in Mexico; and the conversations between the author and an older Pi Patel take place in Toronto. These settings serve more as points of departure. Memory and storytelling, which are also vehicles of freedom, take care of the rest.
In some ways, Martel has his cake and eats it too. He's written a book with unpretentious, casual language that's also capable of stunning lyricism. You'll be moseying along, listening to Pi tell it like it is, and bam: there's a moment of intense beauty. It's like going outside to get the mail at the end of the day and seeing a gorgeous, dripping sunset.
It's a little unsettling:
Killing it was no problem. I would have spared myself the trouble – after all, it was for Richard Parker and he would have dispatched it with expert ease – but for the hook that was imbedded in its mouth. I exulted at having a dorado at the end of my line – I would be less keen if it were a tiger. I went about the job in a direct way. I took the hatchet in both my hands and vigorously beat fish on the head with the hammerhead (I still didn't have the stomach to use the sharp edge). The dorado did the most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on the surface as it struggled. I felt like I was beating a rainbow to death. (2.61.31)
Notice the echoes of well-worn phrases, at least early on, in this passage: "spared myself the trouble," "dispatched it with expert ease," "I went about the job," "I still didn't have the stomach," and so forth (2.61.31). Next thing you know Martel sucker punches you with some pretty poetic language: "I felt like I was beating a rainbow to death." Moral of the story: watch out, because when you least expect it, Martel will get all pretty on you.
Also, Martel also uses surprisingly little dialogue, excepting the extended conversations near the end of the novel. Probably because Pi doesn't have anyone to talk to for about a hundred and fifty pages.
The greatest temptation in the history of mankind is to read Life of Pi as an allegory. It's so easy, right? Each surviving animal matches up with a human survivor. (Martel offers us the blueprint in the second-to-last chapter.) You could also see Richard Parker as God. Pi's ordeal on the Pacific could be viewed as a spiritual journey. And what about the algae island with human teeth hidden in sacs of leaves? Doesn't that have to symbolize something? Isn't this book one big allegory? Don't hate us, but we're going to say, "Well, yes and no."
Pi tells the Japanese investigators a horrific, factual version of his ordeal in Chapter 99. It takes about seven pages. As Martel has stated in one interview, he pushes his readers to make a leap of faith as the novel's events get more and more unlikely. (Check out the interview here.) We have to make a leap of faith – meaning, we have to take Pi for his word – in order to finish the novel without saying, "Oh, this must be Pi's imagination now," or "Martel's using allegory now." Martel and Pi test our latent incredulity with the blind Frenchman and the algae island. When the Japanese investigators question Pi and he tells an alternate version of the story, we're being given The Ultimate Test. We at Shmoop didn't pass the test the first time we read the novel. But now that we know it's a test, we could pass it. No problem.
Pi could have come up with whole Richard Parker story, right? He's a sixteen-year-old boy who experiences some very traumatic events. This is his way of coping. So he invents animals for each survivor of the Tsimtsum. Here's the crucial exchange between Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba:
[Mr. Okamoto:] "The blind Frenchman they met in the other lifeboat – didn't he admit to killing a man and a woman?"
[Mr. Chiba:] "Yes, he did."
[Mr. Okamoto:] "The cook killed the sailor and his mother."
[Mr. Chiba:] "Very impressive."
[Mr. Okamoto:] "His stories match."
[Mr. Chiba:] "So the Taiwanese sailor is the zebra, his mother is the orang-utan, the cook is...the hyena – which means he's the tiger!"
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Yes. The tiger killed the hyena – and the blind Frenchman – just as he killed the cook" (3.99.299-305).
Through Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba we get a very clear explanation of the possible allegory. Pi, because he kills the cook, imagines himself as a terrible and violent tiger. It makes his viciousness, his instinct for survival, at a safe distance. And the viciousness of the cook inhabits the hyena. Perhaps Pi can deal better with both the suffering of the Taiwanese sailor and the murder of his mother if he transforms these people into animals with human qualities. It makes so much sense.
However, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba are by no means heroes in this novel. In fact, they're a little ridiculous. They're a bumbling Abbot and Costello who can't see the beauty and importance of Pi's original story and have to be led to faith. Or, if not faith, at least to a point where they admit that the story with the animals makes a better story.
There's a sense in which the first story is the truer story. For one, Martel spends 150 pages on it, throws in some outlandishly beautiful details, and survival methods from real castaways. It's not a summary. It's the real deal fleshed out and made whole. Which is sort of what faith does for a wafer of bread in the Catholic religion. Secondly, Martel more or less actually cautions against reading the book as an allegory in a number of interviews (like this Radio Praha interview, and this interview on YouTube). Granted, he also says in one interview, "You decide which story is real," but you can probably guess which story that is (Guardian Interview). So you can believe the second story without animals. But then Yann Martel won't be your friend.
OK. The algae island might be the second weirdest part of the book. (Second only to Pi's conversation with the blind Frenchman.) It's an island made entirely of seaweed, full of meerkats and freshwater ponds. It gets even stranger: dead fish rise to the surface of the ponds at night and disappear by morning. Initially Pi thinks the island is a delusion: I was getting used to my delusion. To make it last I refrained from putting a strain on it; when the lifeboat nudged the island, I did not move, only continued to dream. (2.92.9)
But Martel spends too long with the island for it to just be a delusion. Pi describes the island very precisely. It just doesn't have the hazy feel of delusion: those gaps and blurred edges. It has edges. One possibility is that the island represents some type of comfortable faith. When Pi first steps onto it he says as much:
My foot sank into the clear water and met the rubbery resistance of something flexible but solid. I put more weight down. The illusion would not give. I put the full weight of my foot. Still I did not sink. Still I did not believe. (2.92.12)
Doesn't that sound like "Doubting" Thomas from the New Testament touching Christ's wounds in order to believe that he was resurrected from the dead? Or Saint Peter trying to walk on water after he sees Jesus do it?
But maybe the island doesn't represent the type of faith Martel thinks we should have. Because, of course, the algae turns out to be man-eating algae. It's an island that can consume you if you're not careful. Meaning, if you appease yourself with physical comfort – all the food and drink you want – it turns into a type of spiritual death. If your faith is too easy and you no longer brave the stormy seas, then you're no longer experiencing real faith.
Notice too that Pi really tames Richard Parker on the island. He has him jumping through hoops. Literally. Richard Parker, like the ocean, is part of Pi's spiritual trial. What do you do when your spiritual test (a.k.a. Richard Parker) follows your every command? You leave:
By the time morning came, my grim decision was taken. I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous island. (2.92.143)
Like all of Martel's symbols and allegories in Life of Pi, the island ends up being more elusive than one might think. What about the South African meerkats? Didn't Mohandas Gandhi (not the prime minister) pioneer civil disobedience in South Africa as an expatriate lawyer? Pi loves Gandhi. He quotes him a couple times and even calls him "Bapu Gandhi."
Then there's Randall Mark, from Vancouver's The Standard, who asks Martel directly in an interview if the island represents religions thriving together in some sort of mutually beneficial environment. While Martel basically says no, he admits "it is puzzling that religions think so poorly of one another." The latter theories probably aren't viable explanations of the island's symbolism, but they at least unsettle our faith hypothesis.
We've already bombarded you with the idea that nothing in Life of Pi is straightforward allegory. Same goes for Pi's ordeal on the Pacific. There's a lot of religious symbolism, and the whole deal sometimes seems like an allegory for the soul's spiritual journey. If it is such a thing, however, it's much more complex than your average everyday religious allegory.
That said, here's some of the religious stuff:
However the minute specific details complicate the allegory, much of Pi's Pacific ordeal strikes us as very real. Sure, you can interpret Pi's journey as implicitly spiritual, but you can't forget he's also a castaway, with all the tools and problems of a castaway. Somehow, Martel inhabits this middle ground.
Martel chooses a very complex point of view for Life of Pi. Or rather, multiple points of view. We start out in First Person (Central Narrator) Land – meaning, the guy speaking is telling his own story. This is the book's "author." He's sad, but then he comes across Pi's story.
As the "Author's Note" continues, we realize, "Oh, this is not going to be about the author but about guy named Pi Patel." Okay. That would mean a First Person (Peripheral Narrator) since our narrator will tell us Pi's story.
But before we can get too comfortable, a strange thing happens. With Pi's permission, the narrator relates Pi's story to us as if he were Pi. The majority of the book happens from Pi's point of view as retold by the author, who, we should state, is a character in the book. Every now and again, the author comments on Pi's story, presumably to remind us that he's still there. We end up with a hybrid of First Person (Peripheral Narrator) and First Person (Central Narrator) since the author, who is not Pi, tells the story as if he is Pi.
Pretty clever, right?
You may ask: "My brain just melted. What's the point?" Well, Martel wants, more than anything, to communicate the power of fiction. He wants to remind of us of the presence – everywhere around us – of fiction. He does this, partly, through a complex point of view. By having the author interject every now and again, Martel reminds us that what we're hearing is not fact but a story. And not just someone's story, but someone's story told by someone else.
However, like good readers – and because Martel can spin a dang good yarn – we fall right back into Pi's story. We even forget, at times, that we're not listening directly to Pi.
Martel wants to expose the following conundrum: even if you gave the "straight facts" of your life, you'd only be telling a version of it. It would probably be less beautiful, and, strangely enough, it might even be a less truthful version.