Life of Pi is the story of an Indian teenage boy who loses both his parents in an accidental sinking and finds himself shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, a hyena, a zebra and a orangutan. Pi attempts to co-exist with these strange animal friends aboard the constricted raft. The raft becomes subject to the rules of the jungle and not before long it is apparent just who is the head of the food chain. During the 227 days the crew drift at sea, the Bengal tiger, named "Richard Parker" disposes of all of Pi's friends. When they manage to reach the coast of Mexico, Pi is interrogated by the Japanese authorities who do not believe his story. Pi is forced to then tell the "truth" of the story in a second, controversial telling that exposes the religious undertones of the story.
Martel's novel won the Man Booker prize in 2002 because of the story's originality, reflection of the dominant ideologies of the times and the marketability of the obscurity of the author.
The story is certainly entertaining. The characters described vividly and personified. The Indian boy creates a subplot for each animal on the boat and bases his interaction upon this inner story. This can be seen as an attempt by Martel to metaphorically represent the way an individual ascribes to a fundamentalist approach to religion based on subjective information. There is no way for this boy to validate the truth of the characters on this boat. The boy practices a blind faith in their humanity through a creation of an inner story based on an emotionally subjective experience. He has been traumatized by the loss of his parents. These animals are now his surrogate family.
Martel is passionate about writing simple books. He says about his style, "I view my readers as my equals. In a novel you must amuse as you elevate"
Life of Pi uses a simplistic premise however the story unfolds in a very entertaining fashion. There are layers and layers of complex religious and psychological inference weaved into the plot. The ending of the story reveals the story to be an "untruth". This is a clever tool used by the author to complicate what seems to be a simplistic structured, escapist tale of a boy and his animal friends.
The story fell under review after it was revealed that Martel borrowed the premise from a Brazilian author, Moacyr Scliar, who told a similar tale about a teenage Jewish boy shipwrecked on a boat with a panther. Martel admits to borrowing the idea and says of the controversy, "I saw a premise that I liked and I told my own story with it".
The problem with selecting a book to win the Man Booker prize is that it is a subjective act. Every year 130 books are selected from publishers worldwide. The judges can fall prey to bias based on their reputation in the academic and literary community. Man Booker Judge Louise Doughty supports this notion that judges select books based on what makes them personally appear respected, "academics always have their eye on their reputations and always have a vested interest to pick someone as literary and obscure as possible/I think academics automatically feel it will reflect on their career"
The Life of Pi is an interesting choice for the Man Booker prize. Yaan Martel was an unknown author that had been rejected by several publishers before he found one. However, this factor added to the marketability of his story as an author and contributed a sensationalist factor to the story of winning the Man Booker Prize.
This story is an example of a excellent adaptation of a simple premise that unravels in an unconventional fashion. The present setting is an advantage for this author and the book opens with action and excitement only continues to build from this heightened place. There is never a dull chapter in this novel.
The social and religious undertones of this book present a good debate about the purpose of "faith" and the difference between blind faith and truth. Martel has used a simplistic vehicle to transfer complex, culture shaping ideas. He tells a story that connects with a world of people striving to come to common ground about the existence of, truth and purpose of faith.