Life of Pi

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Area of study 1: Reading and responding
Set texts: novels

Life of Pi (Yann Martel)

Overview
Piscine Molitor Patel is the narrator and main character of this unusual story that begins in Pondicherry, India. The son of a zoo keeper, Pi, as he comes to be known, has an extensive knowledge of the animals that inhabit his own backyard, as well as an interest in stories of all kinds and a fascination with the spiritual. He practices not only his native Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When Pi is sixteen, his family - his mother, his father and brother, Ravi, emigrate from India to Canada. They set sail aboard a Japanese cargo ship, Tsimtsum, along with many of their zoo animals, bound for their new homes.

On the journey, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself alone in a life boat, adrift at sea. He soon discovers that he is not the only survivor, but shares his raft with an escaped hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450 pound Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker. Although Pi is confronted with the dangers of these wild animals at sea, his extraordinary knowledge of animal behaviour, along with his faith and determination, allow him to survive, even after the other animals have fallen victim to the tiger’s predatory instincts.

For 227 days Pi and Richard Parker float aimlessly at sea. Pi is very aware that he needs to keep the tiger content and subservient to him. He lives in constant fear of attack, but manages to keep the tiger at bay with a supply of fish, turtles and rain water, and lessons in understanding the pecking order on the boat, that is, that Pi is the master of this wild, unpredictable beast. The harsh physical conditions begin to take their toll as Pi is subjected to the relentless beating of the sun, exposure to the elements and a general lack of hygiene. Although his plight is one of desperation, he manages to maintain his faith in God, and it is this hope and wonder at creation that provides him with the will to keep going.

Just as Pi is beginning to doubt any hope of rescue, and his body is deteriorating rapidly due to his poor diet, most evident through his loss of sight, another survivor from the wreck crosses his path. Although both Pi and the Frenchman are blind from their lack of nutrition, they make some confused exchanges, before Richard Parker devours the unsuspecting cannibal. The resourceful teenager, Pi, however, is not defeated by this tragedy, but uses it as a means of acquiring more supplies, and as a consequence, restores his sight.

After a short interlude on a low-lying island, Pi finally reaches the coast of Mexico and is saved by some locals. Richard Parker instantly flees to the jungle, and is never seen or heard of again. The Japanese authorities, who own the cargo ship, then come to interview Pi about his journey. Unsatisfied with his version of the ‘truth’, the interrogators press Pi into telling a second version of his tale. This story is far less rooted in the imagination, and far more conventional. As a result, the reader is left to ponder which version is in fact more ‘true’.

Characters

Pi Patel
It is important to note that this story is told from the point of view of the adult Pi. This presence is reinforced by Martel through the inclusion of his own observations as he interviews Pi Patel in Toronto as part of his research for the book. He notes that he ‘can’t be older than forty.’ He has an ‘expressive face’ and does not engage in ‘small talk.’ The reader is instantly aware, therefore, that Pi survives the ship wreck as he launches into his story. The adult Pi explains that he was ‘slowly brought back to life’ through academic study and religion. His double major in religious studies and zoology lead the reader neatly into an appreciation of the story of survival that is to follow. Pi is fascinated by animals and religion all his life and this is apparent as the narrative unfolds.

Piscine Molitor Patel is named after a swimming pool which is...
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