‘Life of Pi’ is a wondrous tale of fantasy and faith

22 Aug 2022 | Written by By Carolyn O'Donnell

The blue book illustrated book cover of Life of Pie, which has a tiger on a white raft sitting in the middle of shark-infested waters.


For our next Book Club meeting on Friday 26th August at 2.30pm, we will be chatting about Yann Martel’s Life of Pi  (2002), a novel which explores the depths of human experience through danger, desolation and a soaring spirituality.

Part adventure, part philosophy and part testimonial to the resilience of the human spirit, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is one of those memorable novels that defies genre. You can read it as an exciting tale of survival at sea, for its sense of playfulness or its musings on the nature of emotional truth, of “the better story” versus “dry, yeastless factuality”.

The main character is a boy from Pondicherry, India, who’s named after an impressive Parisian swimming pool. But thanks to urine-inflected mispronunciations of piscine, he prefers to call himself Pi, after the mathematical symbol. On a cargo ship en route to a new life in Canada with his family, aged 16, he survives an accident and ends up on a lifeboat with an enormous Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Or does he?

There are at least two stories of Pi’s horrendous 227 days cast adrift. Maybe Richard Parker and a carnivorous island full of meerkats were part of the journey. Possibly, they symbolise the bestial instincts that lie beneath civilised veneers and emerge, roaring, to keep us alive. Desperation can lead to extremes of barbarism and heroism, and the novel raises questions about what values we might compromise in a battle to exist. When living means betraying ever deeper layers of the self, storytelling can be a way of making peace within.

Pi is the main, unreliable narrator, with interjections from “The Author” who visits to hear his tale, plus some interrogators from a shipping insurance company. Pi’s father managed a zoo – the source of the animals – and there are fascinating insights into how creatures live in enclosures, including an upsetting section on how defenceless exhibits die when fed razors and broken glass by disrespectful visitors. As Pi describes his early life with his family and their collection of beasts, The Author describes visiting middle-aged Pi who’s cultivating a range of religious interests and stockpiling food to deal with extended emergencies.

Young Pi wants to be closer to God, and so embraces three religions, which makes sense to him even if it dismays those who think one faith per person is the appropriate protocol. Beginning his exploration with the incense, music and temple elephants of Hinduism, Pi moves on to Christianity with its “few gods and great violence”. Eventually he reaches Islam and its even “fewer gods, greater violence”. He notes that, while Hinduism “flows placidly” with many stories, Christianity “bustles” through its obsession with one great Story. Meanwhile, Pi rejoices in the “brotherhood and devotion” of Islam – and the way all three foster a deeper connection with the heart and soul.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, starved and utterly desolate, Pi turns to God for solace, and again in later life as a way of dealing with trauma.

The nature of captivity, relativity of truth, meaning of life and faith – these are big questions and big themes. Pi examines these, but also features plenty of practical advice, like the best way to dismember a sea turtle when you want to eat it. It’s also informative if you’ve ever wondered how a lifeboat might resemble a zoo enclosure.

Disturbing, funny and compelling, Life of Pi revels in its grasp of absurdity and sense of mischief. Beautifully written, Martel leaps through language like a gymnast, at times dancing around the reader, dazzling with a wry sense of humour, taking us on soaring leaps of imagination in contemplating the “senile, lecherous expression of a camel”, or an “eviscerated torso, with its broken ribs curving up like the frame of a ship”.

The novel was a bestseller and won the Booker Prize in 2002. In 2012 it was made into a film that won four Oscars. Life of Pi has been read by millions and will be read by millions more.

We highly recommend giving Life of Pi (also available on Kindle) a read and booking onto our next free Book Club session, which will take place on Friday 26th August at 2.30pm, where you will be able to share your thoughts on it. Even if you don’t manage to read the book in time, feel free to come along anyway to listen in or join the discussion as much as you like. 

A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.

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