Blake Snow

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Smooth Harold answers your burning Life of Pi questions

Life of PiI finished reading the popular Life of Pi last night. In sum, it’s a clever endorsement for zoos, storytelling, and the existence of God, either allegorically or literally.

Author Yann Martel’s use of metaphors is inspired and makes me feel inadequate as a writer when it comes to creatively describing objects, emotions, and experiences. For that, I was in awe — and laughing at times. Overall, I give the book four stars out of five for dragging a little in the first and second acts. Chapter 97 is my favorite.

If I were a disoriented high school or college student, and were forced to answer the following discussion guide questions for a homework assignment, these would be my answers:

1. In his introductory note Yann Martel says, “This book was born as I was hungry.” What sort of emotional nourishment might Life of Pi have fed to its author?It seems to me that Life of Pi is a convenient look for Martel at the struggle between God, symbolism, and science. I find it funny how Martel often criticizes agnostics in the book, perhaps a feeling of projection, only to conclude on a rather agnostic interpretation in the end — that God is “the better,” albeit fictional story to the “dry, yeastless” reality (there is no God), and the former should be championed because “it makes no factual difference to you (and I) and you can’t prove the question either way.” (p. 317)

2. Pondicherry is described as an anomaly, the former capital of what was once French India. In terms of storytelling, what makes this town a appropriate choice for Pi’s upbringing?

Because it gave him the opportunity to be subject to animal behavior at the local zoo, which his father owned. That is all.

3. Yann Martel recalls that many Pondicherry residents provided him with stories, but he was most intrigued by this tale because Mr. Adirubasamy said it would make him believe in God. Did Pi’s tale alter your beliefs about God?


4. Early in the novel, we discover that the narrator majored in religious studies and zoology, with particular interests in a sixteenth-century Kabbalist and the admirable three-toed sloth. In subsequent chapters, he explains the ways in which religions and zoos are both steeped in illusion. Discuss some of the other ways in which these two fields find unlikely compatibility.

Martel said it best when he wrote, “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain allusions plague them both.” (p. 19) The world often views rules, restrictions, and self-restraint in a negative way because humans desire a consequence-free environment, which can never exist. Much like a string allows a kite to fly, laws can be used to overcome natural imprisonment like the undesired addiction to a substance, a self-absorbed individual married to loneliness, or Cheshire Cat confusion in life because “if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter where you turn.”

5. Yann Martel sprinkles the novel with italicized memories of the “real” Pi Patel and wonders in his author’s note whether fiction is “the selective transforming of reality, the twisting of it to bring out its essence.” If this is so, what is the essence of Pi?

Martel himself.

6. Pi’s full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, was inspired by a Parisian swimming pool that “the gods would have delighted to swim in.” The shortened form refers to the ratio of a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter. Explore the significance of Pi’s unusual name.

“Pissing” took his crappy name that his colleagues ridiculed him for and turned it into something infinitely likable and diverse, much like his storytelling.

7. One reviewer said the novel contains hints of The Old Man and the Sea, and Pi himself measures his experience in relation to history’s most famous castaways. Considering that Pi’s shipwreck is the first to focus on a boy and his tiger, how does Life of Pi compares to other maritime novels and films?

Even though the book uses some of the same tired maritime themes (eating foreign critters and undesired body parts, whales coming out of the water to examine displaced inhabitants, etc), it tells a more over-the-top story while rarely failing to convince me. Also, one can only do so much at sea, so it’s no surprise Martel borrowed heavily from Poon Lim‘s story of actually surviving 133 days at sea, and Moacyr Scliar’s Max e os Felinos (Max and the Felines), published in 1981, about a German refugee who crosses the Atlantic while sharing his boat with a jaguar. Oh, and five-star Hemingway this is not (but it’s close).

8. How might the novel’s flavor have been changed if Pi’s sole surviving animal were the zebra or Orange Juice? (We assume that if the hyena had been the only surviving animal, Pi would not have lived to tell us his story.)

It would have been boring. Who doesn’t like a tiger? I mean really? Have you ever heard those things purr and growl at your local zoo? Impressive.

9. In chapter 23, Pi sparks a lively debate when all three of his spiritual advisors try to claim him. At the heart of this confrontation is Pi’s insistence that he cannot accept an exclusively Hindu, Christian, or Muslim faith; he can only be content with all three. What is Pi seeking that can solely be attained by this apparent contradiction?

“To love God” in all his interpretations and all ways possible, so he’s fully covered… “You know, in the afterlife,” as Linguine says. Typical immaturity from a 16 year old boy, Pi that is, but I like his style.

10. What do you make of Pi’s assertion at the beginning of chapter 16 that we are all “in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God”? Do you believe that Pi’s piousness was a response to his father’s atheism?

Science doesn’t have all the answers while believers in God purport to, so in that sense, yes. Regarding the second question, yes as well (my preference of Miracle Whip over Mayonnaise was a response to my mother raising me on the later after being raised herself on the former).

11. Among Yann Martel’s gifts is a rich descriptive palette. Regarding religion, he observes the green elements that represent Islam and the orange tones of Hinduism. What color would Christianity be, according to Pi’s perspective?

Blue? Because it’s the most popular color, and Christianity is “the most widely distributed” religion in the world? (Encarta)

12. How do the human beings in your world reflect the animal behavior observed by Pi? What do Pi’s strategies for dealing with Richard Parker teach us about confronting the fearsome creatures in our lives?

Accurately. Give enemies space but show them you won’t go down without a fight, and they’ll likely move to weaker prey.

13. Besides the loss of his family and possessions, what else did Pi lose when the Tsimtsum sank? What did he gain?

His innocence. Maturity.

14. Nearly everyone experiences a turning point that represents the transition from youth to adulthood, albeit seldom as traumatic as Pi’s. What event marks your coming of age?

Moving away from home and severing all financial ties with mom and dad.

15. How do Mr. Patel’s zookeeping abilities compare to his parenting skills? Discuss the scene in which his tries to teach his children a lesson in survival by arranging for them to watch a tiger devour a goat. Did this in any way prepare Pi for the most dangerous experience of his life?

Mr. Patel was a better businessman than father, although he meant well. Watching a tiger devour a goat in no way prepared Pi for what was to come, hence, save the gruesome stuff for when it actually happens. The strong ones can deal with it when the time arrives.

16. Why did Pi at first try so hard to save Richard Parker?

Misery loves company (or hostile company is better than no company at all for a castaway).

17. Pi imagines that his brother would have teasingly called him Noah. How does Pi’s voyage compare to the biblical story of Noah, who was spared from the flood while God washed away the sinners?

Apples and oranges — Noah and Pi’s stories are completely unrelated.

18. Is Life of Pi a tragedy, romance, or comedy?

All of the above — an admirable feat.

19. Do you agree with Pi’s opinion that a zoo is more like a suburb than a jail?

Yes, definitely. He makes a strong case that all animals want is food and territory, in which a zoo provides both, without the fear of death and scarcity of a natural habitat (arguing that animals “run free” in the wild out of necessity to find food, not because they enjoy running in large spaces). We’ve been domesticated and had our leashes reigned in since our nomadic days — why not select animals, especially ones used to educate humans in zoos?

20. How did you react to Pi’s interview by the Japanese transport ministers? Did you ever believe that Pi’s mother, along with a sailor and a cannibalistic cook, had perhaps been in the lifeboat with him instead of the animals? How does Yann Martel achieve such believability in his surprising plots?

1) Loved it. 2) Of course. 3) I believe the literal story, even if the animal tale was “the better one.” Life of Pie was believable for me until about chapter 80, before things really turned into a stretch (catching sharks with bare hands, floating islands, temporary blindness, c’mon). Flying fish storms and rats thrown into tiger mouths were a bit suspect before that point. The “author’s note” and the attention to detail effectively duped me until I was enlightened halfway through the book that this “novel” was in fact “fiction” (I should have read the cover more carefully).

21. The opening scene occurs after Pi’s ordeal has ended. Discussing his work in the first chapter, Pi says that a necktie is a noose, and he mentions some of the things that he misses about India (in spite of his love for Canada). Would you say that this novel has a happy ending? How does the grown-up version of Pi contrast with his little-boy scenes?

No. I thought the ending was sobering, not happy. But I still enjoyed it, and I like adult Pi as much as the adventurous, crying-wolf boy Pi.