Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2020

Life of Pi (2001), by Yann Martel, winner of the Booker Prize in 2002

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, won the Booker Prize in 2002.

November 4th, 2002

Life of Pi is probably the most popular of all the recent Booker winners, still on prominent display in most of the independent bookshops I patronise, and often featuring in polls of favourite books. There’s a recent illustrated version too, which is probably going to become a collector’s item, but I don’t like it even though it’s beautiful. I prefer to imagine the story and settings for myself.

The tale purports to be the bizarre story of a 16 year old boy’s survival of shipwreck, cast away at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Or maybe not. I think that Yann has constructed his story very cleverly to show us how we would rather believe almost anything than confront unappealing truths.

There is a very good plot summary on Wikipedia which is worth reading if you are at all confused, but beware, there are still spoilers below if you have not yet read the book.

It begins credibly enough with the boy’s childhood in Pondicherry, starting with an explanation for his nickname. His real name is Piscenes (French for ‘swimming pool’) because his father, a zookeeper, liked swimming. The teasing he gets at school results in him taking the nickname ‘Pi 3.14 infinitely recurring’, the significance of this being that mathematical pi (∏) is an irrational number. I think Yann is warning us early on that the boy is not to be trusted…

Anyway, the family sets sail for Canada to escape Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the ship sinks. Pi is cast off in a lifeboat with a zebra, a wounded orang-utan, a hyena and a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. (See the Wikipedia link for an explanation of the signifiance of this name). There’s a really grisly account of the zebra’s death at the hands of the hyena, and the orang-utan dies too. The tiger kills the hyena, and then it’s just the tiger and the boy – who survives by mastering the tiger, to the extent that when he later has an opportunity to abandon it on an island, he doesn’t do so.

The twist in this tale is that when Pi is finally rescued in Mexico, his story is investigated. The shipowner’s investigation team don’t believe any of his story so Pi tells them another, one which reveals the metaphors of the fantasy version. In this version, Pi is in the lifeboat with a chef, a wounded sailor and his mother. When they are starving, the sailor (the zebra) is butchered by the chef (the hyena), who also kills the mother (the orang-utan). Pi then kills the chef, i.e. the tiger is the boy’s other self, the savage whose instincts make him kill in order to survive. By killing the tiger/chef the boy checks these violent impulses so that he can re-enter civilisation. The investigators don’t like this version either, and when they write their report, they use the fantasy.

As a fantastic tale, it’s splendid. Some parts are a bit gory and unpleasant but the prose is beautiful, e.g. when he describes the stars, and it’s often very funny indeed. There are rich veins to be mined by book-groups and symbols to be deciphered everywhere.

I read and journalled this story while on holiday at Carlyle House in Rutherglen, (one of Victoria’s lovely wine regions) on 4.11.02.


  1. I’ve only ever seen the movie version of this story – the fantasy scenes were stunning. But I’ve never been tempted to read the book, which is curious, as a good movie experience will usually see me seeking out the book for the whole story.


  2. I enjoyed this more than you did Lisa even though I am not a fan of fantasy at all. It was a novel that you could read on different levels – pure adventure or fantasy or a novel with deep meaning about faith and belief.


    • But I did like it. Just not the gory bits!


  3. My eldest son and I really enjoyed the film version too.


  4. I found this an intensely frustrating read on the first go-’round, but it was for a book club, so I reread and I ended up intensely admiring the crafting and cleverness on the second read. I didn’t know there’s an illustrated version, I’d be curious to see that, even though, as you’ve said, it sometimes is preferable to discover a story visually without prompting. Did you know there is an illustrated edition of Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian? I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, illustrated or otherwise, but I’m certain you would appreciate his writing, and this volume in particular has illustrations which are more historical and annotation-like, rather than artistic renderings, so likely rather different than illustrating Martel.


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