The Life of Pi


This is the latest book to come to the top of the Bed Side Book Stack of Doom (BSBSD), and it’s fascinating. It is an allegory that works on a number of levels, with touches that show just how carefully the author thought things through.

The Life of Pi was written by Yann Martel, published in Canada in 2001 and won, among other things, the Mann Booker Prize.

Pi is Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool. His elementary school education becomes a trial when kids purposely mispronounce his name as “pissing,” so through force of intellect and will he trains his teachers and classmates to call him Pi. Pi, of course, is both an irrational and transcendental number. Names are important. Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, was also the name of a character in an Edgar Allen Poe short story–a character who drew the short straw and was eaten by his shipmates after a shipwreck.

The book begins with Pi as an adult. We learn that he is brilliant, earning top honors at university in Canada with degrees in biology and religion, and that he is narrating his first person story to an unidentified writer. We learn, too, that he is happy. The body of the book begins with his childhood in India as the child of a zoo owner. We see his encyclopedic knowledge of animals and his keen intellect. We see his faith. He is Hindu, and he embraces Christianity, then Islam–all three. We see his courage as he quietly practices the three religions despite the fact that his mentors each reject him because of his refusal to reject the “other” faiths.

from Wikipedia

When Pi is about 16 his family sells the zoo and the zoo animals and emigrates to Canada on a freighter with the animals to care for them. The freighter sinks and Pi is thrown onto a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. No one else, not the captain or crew, not his father, his mother or his brother, and none of the other animals, survives.

The hyena eats the zebra alive, then kills the orang-utan. The tiger finally, quickly and with little apparent effort kills the hyena. Pi lives on the lifeboat with the tiger for 227 days. In part, he owes his survival to the tiger–not only does the tiger kill the hyena, the tiger’s presence forces Pi to action. Pi must make a raft to avoid being eaten, must fish for his own survival not because of his hunger but to keep the tiger’s hunger from killing him.

The tiger literally saves Pi’s life again. Months into their ordeal Pi realizes that the tiger has gone blind. A short time later Pi, too, loses his sight. They come upon another lifeboat with a blind, stranded stranger. Pi helps the stranger onto his lifeboat–the stranger attacks Pi meaning to eat him, but is killed and partially eaten by the tiger. Pi and the tiger regain their sight.

At one level, the book looks at the meaning of life as Story and the meaning of a belief in God or gods. At another, it examines what it means to become human, to grow up. Pi begins life as a vegetarian, a gentle child. When he has to fish to survive he almost vomits when he catches a living fish and must find a way to kill it. But he has a drive to live, and he does kill the fish. He finds through deprivation that he can and will eat anything, kill what he needs to kill in order to stay alive. He finds to his surprise that he ultimately eats like the tiger, ripping the food with his teeth and gulping it in large chunks.

To live he must train the tiger, and his knowledge and courage allow him to do this. In fact, here is the core of the allegory: to be a whole human being you must find a way to live with the part of you that is a tiger, and to bend it to your knowledge and courage.

I found this book in the YA section, and I won’t argue with that. But I would add that it would be a richer experience for the older YA crowd and for adults.


5 Responses to “The Life of Pi”

  1. I’m back. Have you read Coraline? I ask this because you questioned in your last post how children respond to psychology and motherhood. Gaiman has said something like, “Kids read this as an adventure books. Parents read it as horror.” I find it interesting because Coraline is definitely a story about motherhood and independence. Read it, and try to have your oldest granddaughter read it too.

  2. I just reviewed this book myself, and I stumbled upon yours today when I was searching for others’ thoughts on it. I completely missed the part with the names, and was fascinated by the nuance that the meanings of the names add to the story. I usually don’t miss things like that! Thanks for your thoughts – now I want to read the story again. My review is here, if you would like to read it:

    Miz Parker

  3. Helpful information. Lucky me I discovered your website by accident,
    and I am surprised why this twist of fate did not took place earlier!
    I bookmarked it.

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