Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

Year of publication: 2001
Genre: novel, fantastic novel
Setting and Time: Pacific Ocean and India, 1977-78
Themes: religion, survival, life, imagination vs. reality

Man Booker Prize, 2001

About the author: Yann Martel was born in Spain but he moved to different locations throughout his childhood because his parents worked for the Canadian foreign services. He lived in places such as: Alaska, Spain, France, British Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Ontario. As an adult Yann Martel studied philosophy at Trent University. He had written two other books before winning the Booker Prize with Life of Pi.

Plot: After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year-old Indian boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra, a female orang-utan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. How will Pi survive on the lifeboat with a tiger for companion?

Some thoughts: You can’t possibly say that this story is not original or well-written. Martel manages to write a brilliant story that is set for the most part on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean, with only two characters, Pi Patel and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. There are no dialogues for at least half of the book and I was beginning to be fed up with the tiger. The end, however, is completely unexpected. I won’t spoil you if you haven’t read the book, but that’s the real key to the whole meaning of the story. It comes out that the whole book is not about animals and it’s not really about how to survive a shipwreck, either. The ending gave me a sense of satisfaction that I wasn’t hoping in any way, even though I can’t really say that it was an uplifiting ending for the story.
The most interesting part, in my opinion, is at the beginning of the book, when Pi can’t decide if he wants to be a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu, so he professes all three religions. Martel spent much time studying theology, learning that for Hindus it’s not forbidden to believe in God or Allah in addition to Krishna, Kali and all the other Hindu divinities. However, isn’t it strange that Martel, a Canadian national, choose an Indian boy as the protagonist of his story? Is this part of his fascination with India and a result of his travels around the world? Or maybe part of a new ‘post-postcolonial’ literary tradition that particularly appreciates Indian topics and writers (the omnipresent Rushdie, Lahiri, Desai, Roy etc.)?


  1. I read it in English. I loved it. I then tried to read it in French and I didn't love it as much. I wonder if this is because I already knew the story, if my French wasn't good enough to catch the wit and the agony, or if the interest wore off by the second round. All in all Martel is a wonderful storyteller and I regret that I haven't read any of his other works yet.

    Kathleen Molloy, author - Dining with Death


  2. I always try to read books that are written in English in their original versions. I get the feeling that I am experiencing exactly what the author wanted me to experience, without risking misunderstandings. Of course I might not 'catch all the wit' as I am reading the novel in a foreign language, but the prize to pay is not too high. I usually enjoy novels in English better than their translations into Italian.

    About 'Life of Pi': have you noticed that in French you tend to read Pi as 'pee', the same sound as in 'Piscine', while in English you would read 'Pi' as 'pie'? In my mind the book is 'Life of Pee'!!! I think it sounds better...

    I read in your blog that you are Canadian. About Canadian literature, I'd like to read Lawrence Hill's "Book of Negroes" one day. From the description on amazon it sounds really interesting.