Study Guide

Life of Pi Literature and Writing

By Yann Martel

Literature and Writing

Author's Note

It's a misery peculiar to would-be writers. Your theme is good, as are your sentences. [...]. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with color, contrast and telling detail. Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. In spite of the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been pestering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: it won't work. An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story [...]. Your story is emotionally dead, that's the crux of it. The discovery is something soul-destroying, I tell you. It leaves you with an aching hunger. (Author's Note.1.7)

Even with all the technique in the world (or out-of-this-world technique), a story will sputter and die if it doesn't have passion. It's an odd fact of literature, according to Martel: feeling matters more than skill.

This second time to India I knew better what to expect and I knew what I wanted: I would settle in a hill station and write my novel. [...]. The weather would be just right, requiring a light sweater mornings and evenings, and something short-sleeved midday. Thus set up, pen in hand, for sake of greater truth, I would turn Portugal into a fiction. That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence? What need did I have to go to Portugal? (Author's Note.1.5)

The transformation of reality is essential to this novel. The argument goes something like this: when we transform reality, we present it more truthfully. Or, when we describe something like Portugal, we describe the actual Portugal more fully. Try telling this to someone the next time you get caught in a lie.

Part 1, Chapter 17

Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story. (1.17.13)

Pi sees in Christianity a drive to contain all lower-case "stories" in a single upper-case "Story." How is Life of Pi itself an upper-case Story? How can a single Story contain a multitude of stories?

Part 1, Chapter 22

I can well imagine an atheist's last words: "White, white! L-L-Love! My God!" – and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, "Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain," and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (1.22.1)

Faith and storytelling – or rather listening to stories – mix constantly in this novel. Pi ridicules the agnostic for suspending belief and thus missing the more riveting interpretation of death. Though it's worth wondering what role the true story plays in all this. Even if it is a more boring story.

Part 2, Chapter 73

My greatest wish – other than salvation – was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One I could read again and again, with new eyes and a fresh understanding each time. Alas, there was no scripture in the lifeboat. [...]. At the very least, if I had had a good novel! But there was only the survival manual, which I must have read a thousand times over the course of my ordeal. (2.73.1-2)

Great books continue on indefinitely – not because the reader never runs out of pages – because we can read them "again and again, with new eyes and a fresh understanding each time" (2.73.1). It's a starling version of infinity. Much like Pi's name: 3.14159265...which, as an irrational number, never settles after the decimal point.

Part 2, Chapter 89

That was my last entry. I went on from there, endured, but without noting it. Do you see these invisible spirals on the margins of the page? I thought I would run out of paper. It was the pens that ran out. (2.89.4)

Through Pi's diary, Martel comments on writing. Some of the most important stuff in a novel or poem is what the author leaves unsaid. Pi provides us with a startling image of his unspoken despair: invisible spirals in the margin of the page.

Part 2, Chapter 94

What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. [...]. It's important to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. (2.94.5)

Art doesn't always have to be harmonious. Think of the screeching guitars of punk or the white noise of experimental rock. But Pi – and presumably Martel – believes that when it comes to goodbyes (read: the last chapter), you must unburden your heart. Do you think Pi tells everything? What would it mean for Martel to tell everything?

Part 3, Chapter 99
Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba

Mr. Okamoto: "But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.

[Pi:] "What really happened?"

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Yes."

[Pi:] "So you want another story?"

[Mr. Okamoto:] " We would like to know what really happened."

[Pi:] "Doesn't the telling of something always become a story?"

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Uhh...perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don't want any invention. We want the 'straight facts,' as you say in English."

[Pi:] "Isn't telling about something – using words, English or Japanese – already an invention? Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Uhh..."

[Pi:] "The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?" (3.99.205-14)

Pi makes a claim here that no matter how we present the events of our lives, we're always telling a story. That there's no such thing as "just the facts." And when we present "just the facts," we're actually telling a version of events (also known as a story). Do you agree? Can one version be more truthful than another? And what does it mean, in this situation, to be truthful?

Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel

[Pi:] "So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?"

Mr. Okamoto: "That's an interesting question..."

Mr. Chiba: "The story with animals."

Mr. Okamoto: "Yes. The story with the animals is the better story."

Pi Patel: "Thank you. And so it goes with God." (3.99.429-33)

Whoa. Mr. Pi Patel moves pretty quick here. Pi has said plenty already about how we interpret reality anyway and how we might as well choose the better story. But Pi – our clever sampler of world religions – takes it a step further. He argues a world with God makes a better story than a world without God. In cases where we have no definite proof, Pi says the best fiction is the best reality. Is Pi pulling a fancy trick? Or does he have a point?

"I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality." (3.99.224)

The Japanese investigators don't believe Pi's story. However, Pi responds in a surprising way: factuality only confirms what we already know. A story, however, makes us "see higher or further or differently." Notice also the adjectives "dry" and "yeastless" (3.99.224). A good story, according to Pi, expands and rises like bread. Sounds like a valuable commodity given that our narrator barely survived starvation.