Thursday, March 14, 2013

Life of Pi: 100 chapters, 100 years

First, happy Pi Day 2013! This post will mostly be stuff I've written before, but this time less pretentious and esoteric. For a long time I was planning on being an English professor, and I wanted to use this topic as my thesis or dissertation or something. But since I've abandoned that route, I don't feel the need to hide the issue in stilted "academic" writing. So here it is:

Life of Pi has 100 chapters, and each chapter is a metaphor for that year in the 20th century.

When I first finished Life of Pi, I went kind of nuts with how much I loved it, so my family gave me a collection of Yann Martel's short stories for my birthday. The main story in the collection is The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (which, at one point, I could spell without Googling). In it, the two main characters start writing a novel where each chapter is a metaphor for an event in the 20th century. The story was published in the 80s, so they used an incomplete list of events or "facts." I thought that was way too nifty an idea to leave just in the short story.

Turns out, Life of Pi was published in 2001. Pi suspiciously has 100 chapters, and they frequently correspond closely to the "facts" laid out in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. In 1903, for example, the Wright Brothers had their first flight; in chapter three, Pi learns how to swim. In 1969, Americans landed on the moon; in chapter 69, Pi shoots off a series of desperate flares. The Tsimtsum sinks in the chapter that corresponds with Pearl Harbor, etc.

The point is, Life of Pi functions on an absurd number of levels. You could go crazy trying to pick apart each chapter and what its commentary would be on all of the different world events.

At the same time, though, I think it's vital to any reading of Pi to be aware that Pi's journey isn't just Pi's. It's Martel's framing of the entire 20th century. This isn't just the story of one boy from Pondicherry trying to stay alive in the presence of a tiger. It's the story of a world trying to come to terms with its spiritual inheritance, trying to make sense of the conflicting stories that shape our reality. It's about the 100 years war of faith, reason, and modernity.

The premise of Life of Pi is so simple it can be expressed in three basic nouns: boy, boat, tiger. But the complexity of the work spirals out towards infinity, as unending and irrational as Pi's own namesake.

I love this book.


  1. Wow, beautifully said. And I thought I had "Life of Pi" figured out!! Not so.

  2. I love how much you love this! And I love talking to you about this stuff! And this would make a pretty insane thesis. Maybe someday you will just write it for fun.