The brief, italicized section that precedes Part One begins with some background on the book’s author, who has written himself into the text as a character. The author tells us that in 1996, smarting from the less than favorable response to his first two books, he flew to Bombay to rejuvenate his mind. On this, his second trip to India, he arrived with plans to write a novel about Portugal. But that book failed to materialize, and he began to feel hopeless and dejected about his prospects.
In this slightly desperate state, the author says, he left the environs of Bombay and, after a period of wandering, arrived in the town of Pondicherry, in the south of India. Pondicherry had once been controlled by the French Empire but had become self-governing decades ago. In a local coffee shop, the author continues, he met by chance a man named Francis Adirubasamy, who offered to tell him a story. The man told bits and pieces of the story while the author made notes.
Later, back in his native Canada, the author called up the protagonist of Francis Adirubasamy’s story, Mr. Patel (we only know his last name at this point). Mr. Patel agreed to meet with him and tell him his own version of the story, which he did over the course of numerous meetings. He showed the author documents, including his old diary and ancient newspaper clippings about his ordeal. Later, the author received supporting documents from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. The author explains that he decided to write up Mr. Patel’s account using Mr. Patel’s own voice and looking through his eyes. Any mistakes, he states, are the author’s own. The author’s note ends with a series of acknowledgments, most notably to Mr. Patel and to the novelist Moacyr Scliar.
Though just six pages long, the Author’s Note clues us into the book’s origins even as it blurs the boundary between fact and fiction. The note claims the text is nonfiction, placing this book squarely in the tradition of picaresque novels like Don Quixote, which masquerade as fact even though they are obviously works of imagination. In picaresque novels, the harsh realities of life—poverty, illness, and so on—are subject to wry, ironic, and even humorous treatment. In Life of Pi, Martel uses his narrator to make serious commentary on everything from religion to politics, and the mock-journalistic introduction emphasizes the intersection of fact and fiction in his literary world.
The Author’s Note blends facts and fictions about Yann Martel’s own inspiration for the book to illustrate the central theme of the book: storytelling. Martel really had written two not-so-successful books before this one and inspiration had struck him during a visit to India. But did he really meet Francis Adirubasamy in a coffee shop, and does Pi Patel really exist? The answer is no. On one level, Martel is just doing what fiction writers do: creating an imaginary scenario to delight and entice his readers. But on another level, these opening six pages deftly lay the foundation for the novel’s central theme, which is that storytelling is a way to get around telling the boring or upsetting or uninteresting truth. Martel doesn’t want to say that this novel was created by painstakingly researching zoos and religions and oceanic survival guides, getting up early every morning, and writing for several hours a day. Such an explanation would poke a hole in the balloon of fantasy that Pi’s account inflates over the course of the next three hundred pages; so, instead, he invents a different origin story.
The Author’s Note is balanced structurally by Part Three, another short section that is also concerned with creating the impression that this entire book is a work of nonfiction. These bookends do not really fool the reader, of course, but they give us the ability to suspend our disbelief and invest ourselves more fully in the story we are about to read.