Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a story written about the incredible life of Pi Patel, the sole survivor of a shipwreck that left him alone, fighting for his life with the companion of a Bengal Tiger. The novel is not just a simple survival story, and is largely existential and devotes many pages to descriptions of nature and religion.

The first part of the novel is primarily an exploration of Pi’s life before the shipwreck, often focusing on the zoo his father owns. The book uses the animalistic aspect of the setting to examine the relationship between man and nature, establishing early on the ferocity and beauty that the natural world holds. As the story goes, Pi is isolated in the Pacific and forced to navigate through the violent sea, a situation that parallels to his early descriptions the animals’ behaviors. He extensively describes a lesson taught by his father to never interact with animals kept in the zoo, as they would react violently and cause his death, creative as it may be. However, he ends the memory with him holding a guinea pig, a hopelessly harmless creature that couldn’t be dangerous if it tried. Like his relationship to the animals, Pi’s experience on the sea is usually violent, yet he describes it with admiration: “…the sea is always impressive and forbidding, beautiful and dangerous” (102). This complex man vs. nature relationship is emphasized and thoroughly set up in the first half. I predict that it will become even more interesting as Pi continues to fend for his survival in the second half of the novel.

In addition to exploring the theme of man vs. nature even before Pi is shipwrecked, the relationship between man and God is also looked at. In his teenage years, Pi becomes a practicing Christian and Muslim on top of Hinduism, devoting himself to the different existential and relational ideas each religion presents. His dedication to all three religions (much to the horror of the priest, the imam, and the pandit) allows him to expand his love for the world, and guides him in his hopelessness on the Pacific. A person certainly undeserving of abandonment or tragedy, I suspect that Pi’s relationship with God(s) will become even more closely examined in the second part of the novel. His religions are continually referenced, and is used as a driving force in the first half. With the interesting ideas already thoroughly developed, Martel’s deeply existential survival story proves to stand out and offers a fresh perspective on mankind.

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One response to “Life of Pi by Yann Martel

  1. dalialiu

    The second part of The Life of Pi was infinitely more exciting than the first, since it is when they story really begins. Already made clear in the first half, Pi’s story is not just another survivor’s tale.

    Although the story has a happy ending (as made clear from the beginning when the future Pi recounts his story to a reporter), the plot itself contained passages on the strength of life that was unexpectedly dark and disturbing. A graphic description of a hyena attacking and eating a zebra is included, and although it is a daily occurrence, the way the scene is written creates an evil sense. Martel often pairs two contrasting scenes together, which makes for an impactful, albeit disturbing commentary. The hyena, described by Pi as immoral and dirty, holds onto its own life by taking the lives of other animals sharing the lifeboat. At one moment, a gruesome attack is shown, but the next describes the strength and will of a zebra who managed to survive for an abnormally long time with a “two-foot wide hole in its body” and “spewed half-eaten organs.”

    Martel also employs the same type of contrast in describing man and nature. In one day, Pi will be blessed with the joy of rain and freshwater as well as flying fish who sacrifice themselves for his food, but also surrounded by sharks and scorched by the sun. This inconsistent and drastically changing relationship establishes the distrust between man and nature, further proven by the carnivorous island Pi finds refuge on. Whether a product of his hallucination or an undiscovered phenomenon, the carnivorous island where Pi finds a full set of 32 human teeth embedded in the “fruit” of a plant mirrors the two-sidedness he discovers about his survival. In the day, the island is an oasis and a vegetarian utopia, but at night it is acidic and carnivorous.

    I found all of Martel’s contrasting imagery particularly interesting, as it could be found in almost every element of the novel. In addition, he builds Pi to be a very dynamic and two-sided character. At the start of his journey, Pi is sentimental to all life forms and was emotional to remotely hurt a fish he needed for food, yet as his days grow numerous, he has no problem knifing a fish in the eyeball. This change, although necessary, was still disheartening and made the book so much more impactful.

    I fully enjoyed reading this book, and would recommend it to anyone regardless of genre. It’s a beautifully written novel, and explores a lot into religion, nature, life, and the behavior of mankind. The first half might seem a little slow to read since not much plot is developed, but it provides a lot of interesting insight that makes it worthwhile to read.

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