Pi Patel is an unusual boy. The son of a zookeeper, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior, a fervent love of stories, and practices not only his native Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes.
The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them "the truth." After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional-but is it more true?
Life of Pi is at once a realistic, rousing adventure and a meta-tale of survival that explores the redemptive power of storytelling and the transformative nature of fiction. It's a story, as one character puts it, to make you believe in God.
About the Author
Hometown:Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Date of Birth:June 25, 1963
Place of Birth:Salamanca, Spain
Education:B.A. in philosophy, Trent University, Ontario, 1986
Read an Excerpt
My suffering left me sad and gloomy.
Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly brought me back to life. I have remained a faithful Hindu, Christian and Muslim. I decided to stay in Toronto. After one year of high school, I attended the University of Toronto and took a double-major Bachelor's degree. My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because its demeanour-calm, quiet and introspective-did something to soothe my shattered self.
There are two-toed sloths and there are three-toed sloths, the case being determined by the forepaws of the animals, since all sloths have three claws on their hind paws. I had the great luck one summer of studying the three-toed sloth in situ in the equatorial jungles of Brazil. It is a highly intriguing creature. Its only real habit is indolence. It sleeps or rests on average twenty hours a day. Our team tested the sleep habits of five wild three-toed sloths by placing on their heads, in the early evening after they had fallen asleep, bright red plastic dishes filled with water. We found them still in place late the next morning, the water of the dishes swarming with insects. The sloth is at its busiest at sunset, using the word busy here in a most relaxed sense. It moves along the bough of a tree in its characteristic upside-down position at the speed of roughly 400 metres an hour. On the ground, it crawls to its next tree at the rate of 250 metres an hour, when motivated, which is 440 times slower than a motivated cheetah. Unmotivated, it covers four to five metres in an hour.
The three-toed sloth is not well informed about the outside world. On a scale of 2 to 10, where 2 represents unusual dullness and 10 extreme acuity, Beebe (1926) gave the sloth's senses of taste, touch, sight and hearing a rating of 2, and its sense of smell a rating of 3. If you come upon a sleeping three-toed sloth in the wild, two or three nudges should suffice to awaken it; it will then look sleepily in every direction but yours. Why it should look about is uncertain since the sloth sees everything in a Magoo-like blur. As for hearing, the sloth is not so much deaf as uninterested in sound. Beebe reported that firing guns next to sleeping or feeding sloths elicited little reaction. And the sloth's slightly better sense of smell should not be overestimated. They are said to be able to sniff and avoid decayed branches, but Bullock (1968) reported that sloths fall to the ground clinging to decayed branches "often".
How does it survive, you might ask.
Precisely by being so slow. Sleepiness and slothfulness keep it out of harm's way, away from the notice of jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles and anacondas. A sloth's hairs shelter an algae that is brown during the dry season and green during the wet season, so the animal blends in with the surrounding moss and foliage and looks like a nest of white ants or of squirrels, or like nothing at all but part of a tree.
The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment. "A good-natured smile is forever on its lips," reported Tirler (1966). I have seen that smile with my own eyes. I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.
Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students-muddled agnostics who didn't know which way was up, in the thrall of reason, that fool's gold for the bright-reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.
I never had problems with my fellow scientists. Scientists are a friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose minds are preoccupied with sex, chess and baseball when they are not preoccupied with science.
I was a very good student, if I may say so myself. I was tops at St. Michael's College four years in a row. I got every possible student award from the Department of Zoology. If I got none from the Department of Religious Studies, it is simply because there are no student awards in this department (the rewards of religious study are not in mortal hands, we all know that). I would have received the Governor General's Academic Medal, the University of Toronto's highest undergraduate award, of which no small number of illustrious Canadians have been recipients, were it not for a beef-eating pink boy with a neck like a tree trunk and a temperament of unbearable good cheer.
I still smart a little at the slight. When you've suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling. My life is like a memento mori painting from European art: there is always a grinning skull at my side to remind me of the folly of human ambition. I mock this skull. I look at it and I say, "You've got the wrong fellow. You may not believe in life, but I don't believe in death. Move on!" The skull snickers and moves ever closer, but that doesn't surprise me. The reason death sticks so closely to life isn't biological necessity-it's envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud. The pink boy also got the nod from the Rhodes Scholarship committee. I love him and I hope his time at Oxford was a rich experience. If Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, one day favours me bountifully, Oxford is fifth on the list of cities I would like to visit before I pass on, after Mecca, Varanasi, Jerusalem and Paris.
I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful.
I love Canada. I miss the heat of India, the food, the house lizards on the walls, the musicals on the silver screen, the cows wandering the streets, the crows cawing, even the talk of cricket matches, but I love Canada. It is a great country much too cold for good sense, inhabited by compassionate, intelligent people with bad hairdos. Anyway, I have nothing to go home to in Pondicherry.
Richard Parker has stayed with me. I've never forgotten him. Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once. That pain is like an axe that chops at my heart.
The doctors and nurses at the hospital in Mexico were incredibly kind to me. And the patients, too. Victims of cancer or car accidents, once they heard my story, they hobbled and wheeled over to see me, they and their families, though none of them spoke English and I spoke no Spanish. They smiled at me, shook my hand, patted me on the head, left gifts of food and clothing on my bed. They moved me to uncontrollable fits of laughing and crying.
Within a couple of days I could stand, even make two, three steps, despite nausea, dizziness and general weakness. Blood tests revealed that I was anemic, and that my level of sodium was very high and my potassium low. My body retained fluids and my legs swelled up tremendously. I looked as if I had been grafted with a pair of elephant legs. My urine was a deep, dark yellow going on to brown. After a week or so, I could walk just about normally and I could wear shoes if I didn't lace them up. My skin healed, though I still have scars on my shoulders and back.
The first time I turned a tap on, its noisy, wasteful, superabundant gush was such a shock that I became incoherent and my legs collapsed beneath me and I fainted in the arms of a nurse.
The first time I went to an Indian restaurant in Canada I used my fingers. The waiter looked at me critically and said, "Fresh off the boat, are you?" I blanched. My fingers, which a second before had been taste buds savouring the food a little ahead of my mouth, became dirty under his gaze. They froze like criminals caught in the act. I didn't dare lick them. I wiped them guiltily on my napkin. He had no idea how deeply those words wounded me. They were like nails being driven into my flesh. I picked up the knife and fork. I had hardly ever used such instruments. My hands trembled. My sambar lost its taste.
Copyright © 2001 by Yann Martel
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What People are Saying About This
Winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
"Let me tell you a secret: the name of the greatest living writer of the generation born in the sixties is Yann Martel."L'Humanité
"A story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction and its human creators, and in the original power of storytellers like Martel."Los Angeles Times Book Review
“If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel is surely a contender.’The Nation
"Beautifully fantastical and spirited."Salon
"Martel displays the clever voice and tremendous storytelling skills of an emerging master."Publishers Weekly
"[Life of Pi] could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life."The New York Times Book Review
"Audacious, exhilarating . . . wonderful. The book's middle section might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction. It also stands up against some of Martel's more obvious influences: Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the novels of H. G. Wells, certain stretches of Moby Dick."Quill & Quire
Reading Group Guide
1. As Pi’s father says, when he is explaining the ferocity of the zoo animals to his sons, “Life will defend itself no matter how small it is.” In what ways does Pi defend himself in this novel?
2. With his stories about zoos and zoology, Pi teaches us that the ability to adapt is crucial not only to animals but to humans, and is rooted in the will to survive. How do Pi’s theories of zoo-keeping play out on the lifeboat? Does Pi go through a transformation on his journey? What does he learn?
3. Our author discovers the story of Pi Patel after an elderly man in an Indian coffee house tells him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” As a young man, Pi shocks his family and local religious officials by embracing Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, and sees no reason to pick just one. And on the lifeboat, it is God that Pi turns to in his despair. Discuss the role of religion, and religious stories, in this novel.
4. When Pi meets with the Japanese officials at the end of his journey and tells them his story, they do not believe him and ask what really happened. Pi provides them with a new story, one of “dry, yeastless factuality,” without animals, and then asks which one they prefer. Discuss the nature of storytelling and belief in relation to Life of Pi, and to life.
5. “As for hearing, the sloth is not so much deaf as uninterested in sound.” “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” As a story of death, loss, fear and destruction, Life of Pi has at its heart a number of very tragic events. However, one of the most pervasive elements of the novel is its very matter-of-fact humour. Why do you think this is? What is the effect on you, as a reader?
6. Near the end of Life of Pi, Pi and Richard Parker come ashore on a free-floating island comprised entirely of algae and inhabited only by many, many meerkats. Why does Pi decide to leave the island? What is the significance of this story? Is there a difference between survival and life?
7. Whereas the bulk of this novel is told by Pi Patel “in his voice and through his eyes,” our author tells us we also see the current-day Pi through the eyes of the author, and read “excerpts from the verbatim transcript” of the young Pi’s interview with the Japanese officials. Why? Discuss the effect of and possible reasons for the narrative structure of this novel.
8. The Author’s Note ends with a what seems to be a call to arms: “If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.” In reviews of Life of Pi, Yann Martel has been equally and abundantly praised for his realism and his great imagination. Do you see a conflict between these approaches to writing fiction? What is the role of “truth” in fiction?
9. In Life of Pi we know Richard Parker to be a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger mistakenly named after the hunter who captured him, and Pi’s companion during his seven months at sea. But there are further nautical stories involving Richard Parkers, outside of this book: Edgar Allan Poe’s Richard Parker was eaten by his shipmates in the novel The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, a real-life cabin boy named Richard Parker was eaten by his fellow castaways after the sinking of the Mignonette in the 1870s, and so on. Who is Richard Parker? Why might Yann Martel have chosen the name Richard Parker for this tiger, and this novel? Discuss the importance of names, and naming, in Life of Pi.