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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

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Life of Pi | 11 Things You Didn't Know


Canadian author Yann Martel's Life of Pi, published in 2001, was an instant success, winning the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2002 and selling more than 12 million copies by 2015. An award-winning film adaptation debuted in 2012.

The novel tells the story of Piscine Patel, known as Pi, a young man whose inquiries into religion lead him to become Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. When political turmoil erupts in India, Pi's zoo-owning family begins a move from India to Canada. In a tragic turn of events, Pi's ship sinks, and he is left to survive on the ocean in a lifeboat with only a few companions. An allegory, a tale of magic realism, and a thrilling adventure story, Life of Pi balances science and religion and realism and fantasy in a way that has intrigued and fascinated readers since its publication.

1. Life of Pi was rejected by five publishers in London before being published in Canada.

When Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize, journalists discovered that it had been rejected at several big-name publishers before being accepted by Knopf Canada. Penguin Books and Chatto & Windus admitted to passing up the manuscript. The editor at Penguin noted, "Taste is very subjective." Martel's agent said:

It is embarrassing for the editors concerned. I understand how they must be feeling today. But you know, this sort of thing happens all the time with serious fiction in particular, where taste and sensibility are what matters.

2. Martel read books on religion, animal behavior, and castaways as background for Life of Pi.

Martel did a lot of research in preparation for writing his novel. Pi, the main character, is Hindu, Christian, and Muslim; he needs the wisdom of many of the world's great religions to complete a truly spiritual journey of the soul. Martel believed he had to research all three religions to write the character well. In an interview, he stated:

I read the foundational texts of Hinduism, of Islam, of Christianity. I read secondary texts on them. I read books on zoo biology and animal psychology. I read loads of castaway stories. It was wonderful.

3. Martel named his main character in Life of Pi after a mathematical constant and a swimming pool.

The full name of Martel's main character is Piscine, which is the French word for "swimming pool." In addition, pi is an irrational number that expresses the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. These two bases for the name Pi come together for the author, as he states:

A swimming pool ("piscine" in French) is a rectangular volume of water, a controlled volume of water. I liked the irony of a boy named after a rational volume of water being adrift in an uncontrollable volume of water, the Pacific.

4. Martel's parents did the French translation of Life of Pi.

Martel was born in Spain to Canadian parents and grew up mostly in Canada. While Martel's first language is French, he claims to only feel comfortable writing in English. His parents, however, are fluent in French, English, and Spanish, and they work as translators. They translated Life of Pi for the French edition.

5. Martel deliberately chose not to include the article the in the title Life of Pi.

Martel's naming of Pi after the number pi, which is infinite, is reflected in his choice of title. He stated, "I deliberately left out the definite article. That would have denoted a single life." He claimed, "Life is not finite," and he wanted his title to reflect his character's story, which is in part about the infinitude of life as seen from a religious perspective.

6. The artist for the Illustrated Life of Pi was chosen in a contest.

Jamie Byng, the head of Martel's Scottish publisher, Canonbridge, felt the novel lent itself to internal illustrations, though the original edition did not include any. He decided to have a competition to choose an illustrator. There were more than 1,800 submissions, which the judges cut down to 15. Finally the judges chose a young artist from Croatia, Tomislav Torjanac, who used a combination of oil painting, photography, and digital techniques to create the illustrations for the edition.

7. Martel compared winning the Man Booker Prize for Life of Pi to climbing Mount Everest.

Martel's first novel, Self, sold very poorly, and he was not prepared for the success Life of Pi would bring him. He wrote about traveling to England for the Man Booker Prize ceremony, describing the moment when his book was announced as the winner:

I roar "Yes!" and jump up, raising my left fist in the air. I raise both my arms. I feel like Jesus Christ after he's done his three days in Hell, I feel like a boy who has just discovered the joys of self-abuse, I feel like Sir Edmund Hillary after he's stumbled to the top of Everest, all three joys all at once.

8. Richard Parker, the name of the tiger in Life of Pi, was a real shipwreck victim.

The name for Richard Parker, the tiger, has two different sources. In Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), Richard Parker is one of a group of sailors who are starving to death when their ship founders. The shipmates draw straws to determine who will be eaten: Richard Parker loses. In 1884 in a bizarre coincidence, three crew members of the Mignonette took to a lifeboat with only two turnips for food. Starving, two of them killed and ate the cabin boy, whose name was Richard Parker.

9. Ang Lee's film version of Life of Pi received four Academy Awards.

In 2012 director Ang Lee adapted Life of Pi for the screen. The film opened to mixed reviews that called it "Flawed, yes, but marvellously ambitious, and unforgettably gorgeous to look at." It won Oscars for Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Director.

10. Martel was accused of plagiarism in writing Life of Pi.

In 1981 Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar published a book called Max and the Cats, about a young Jewish man who, while fleeing the Nazis, is trapped in a lifeboat with a black jaguar. Martel noted that he had decided to write Life of Pi after reading a review of Max and the Cats by John Updike in the New York Times Book Review. However, the Times claimed that Updike did not write a review of the book.

Martel mentioned the earlier book in his acknowledgements, but he later complicated the matter by stating, "I didn't really want to read it. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer?" This infuriated Brazilians, including the author of Max and the Cats and his publisher, who threatened a lawsuit. However, no lawsuit was ever filed.

11. Martel sent Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a different book every two weeks for several years.

In 2007 Martel decided to begin sending Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, a book every two weeks. His reasoning for the project was, "We can't be ruled entirely by middle-aged white men who haven't read a book since they've left high school. Art is not just entertainment—it's also the best tool to understand life." Martel continued sending the books for four years, each with an accompanying letter, but after sending 100 books and getting no reply from the prime minister, he ended the project. There's no indication if Harper read any of the books.

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