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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

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Life of Pi | Context



The novel is an example of autofiction, or a fictionalized autobiography of the character Pi Patel. The term autofiction was coined by French writer Serge Doubrovsky to describe his work Fils (1977). By combining autobiography with fiction, works of autofiction seek to define the self or truth through fictional elements that may conflict with literal fact. To this end writers of autofiction may narrate in the third person or change the facts relating to people, details, or events because they believe this fictionalization tells a larger truth.

Martel said the story's central metaphor came to him one day: the tiger in the story would be "divine," while the lifeboat in which Pi Patel floats would be "an odyssey of the soul across existence." As autofiction the novel has the same trappings of authenticity a reader might find in a nonfiction biography or autobiography. It includes observations by a visiting writer about the main character, a transcript of an interview, an official report, and acknowledgments. The book itself discusses the relativity of truth frequently. Pi knows his story is hard to believe and feels readers may dispute its accuracy. He argues, "Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?" Martel believes "there are truths that go beyond factual truth, that build upon it" in both art and faith.

Max and the Cats

Martel faced controversy regarding the novel's inspiration. While searching for ideas, he read a review of respected Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's book Max and the Cats (1981).

In Scliar's book a young boy and his zoo-keeping parents immigrate to Brazil, and the boy is shipwrecked with a panther for company. Martel thought "the idea had been faxed to the wrong muse." When Scliar heard of Life of Pi, which has a similar plotline, he felt Martel had infringed upon his intellectual property without consulting him.

Martel openly acknowledged the role of Scliar's story in his own novel and thanked him briefly and obliquely in the Author's Note: "I am indebted to Mr. Moacyr Scliar, for the spark of life."

Animals as Allegory

Martel was interested by "the extremes of existence on earth—the animal and the divine." Pi, a double major in zoology and religion in college, is similarly fascinated by these extremes. Martel wants readers to decide which of Pi's stories is better—the story with animals, in which the animals function as allegorical symbols for ideas and events in Part 2 of the book, or the story Pi gives in Part 3, replacing animals with humans desperate to survive: "One is on the outer edges of the barely believable," Martel says, "the other is nearly unbearable in its violence." He feels the story with animals involves a "transcendental element," or an understanding of truth that transcends or moves beyond factual details, lacking in the story with humans.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Indian Emergency

Indira Gandhi, the "Mrs. Gandhi" in Life of Pi, won India's 1971 election and became the country's leader. In Life of Pi her government provides the backdrop to the Patel family's life-changing decision to emigrate.

Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India in 1975 (one year before Pi's family leaves for Canada) in part because of increased political opposition. Her rule was controversial because she restricted the personal freedoms of Indian citizens and imprisoned her opponents. To make matters worse, her time in office was marked by poverty and food shortages. The time period between 1975–77 is sometimes called "The Indian Emergency."

Mrs. Gandhi's leanings toward dictatorship affect the Patel family both indirectly and directly. In Part 1, Chapter 29 Mr. Patel references Mrs. Gandhi's jails being full. Pi mentions the country's constitution has been suspended for eight months by the time the family leaves. In 1975 Indira Gandhi amended the Indian Constitution to give herself the right to rule by decree, limiting people's freedoms.

When Indira Gandhi takes over the Patels' local Tamil Nadu government, forcing its leader to resign, the Patels sense real danger for their family and make plans to leave India.

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