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Yann Martel: Life of Pi

If nothing else, you have to admire a writer, most of whose book has only two main characters – a sixteen year old Indian boy and a Bengal tiger. This could make for a very boring novel. Martel’s skill is that it not does not make for a boring novel but makes for a very fascinating novel. Though we do have an idea of what is going to happen later, the novel starts off by telling us a well-written but not particularly original story. The hero/narrator is called Piscine Molitor Patel, named after the famed but now defunct Paris swimming pool of that name. His peers quickly learn to called him Pissing till, at a new school, he gets himself called Pi. His father owns the zoo in Pondicherry. However, times are bad – caused in Mr. Patel’s view by Mrs. Gandhi – and they decide to emigrate to Canada. They manage to sell some of the animals and some of them have to accompany them on the ship to Canada.

One night, Pi gets up and finds the ship is sinking. We never know why and it all happens very suddenly. He is thrown overboard by the crew and lands in a lifeboat, followed shortly by a zebra, whose leg is badly broken. To his horror, he sees the Bengal tiger approaching. He tries to fend it off but it seems to get in the boat. Pi settles down for an unpleasant night. When morning breaks, Pi sees the zebra and, from under the tarpaulin, comes a hyena rather than a tiger. Hyenas, as we learn, can be very vicious. He also sees the orangutan floating by on a pile of bananas and rescues her. Pi is, of course, in a state and is not helped by the fact when the hyena starts eating the still living zebra and then kills the orangutan and eats her. Pi feels that he is next when he feels a stirring near his feet. It is the tiger, who has been seasick. The tiger soon demolishes the hyena, while Pi makes himself a life-raft out of lifejackets and oars and escapes, though leaves himself attached to the lifeboat. Much of the rest of the book is about how he successfully tames the tiger and his relationship with the animal. They survive – together – in a sort of symbiotic relationship, with Pi providing the tiger with food (fish and turtles) and drink (water from solar stills thoughtfully provided in the lifeboat), while the tiger gives him an incentive to live.

Apart from a brief stay on an island, inhabited by meerkats and killer algae (really!), the book continues on the boat, till they finally land in Mexico and the tiger walks off, never to be seen again. But much of the main part of the book is not just a man-beast relationship thing, though that is very much part of it, but also a discourse on religion and man’s role in the universe, the finer points of zoology and, of course, survival. Martel tells the story with both humour and wisdom so that it is easy to see why the book was such a success. Of course, the twist – if twist it is – in the ending is just icing on the cake.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Vintage