The main text of the book begins with Pi’s declaration that he has suffered a great deal, leaving him despondent. The nature of his suffering and its source are not yet clear to the reader. Pi tells us that he continued his religious and zoological studies and was a very good student. He mentions that his religious studies thesis addressed aspects of Isaac Luria’s cosmogony theory. He speaks at length about sloths and observes that their very survival is ensured by the fact that they are so slow and dull; they virtually disappear into the background. We learn that Pi is now working, though he does not say anything about his profession. We also learn that Pi misses India and loves Canada, and that he misses someone named Richard Parker.
Pi mentions his stay at a hospital in Mexico, where he was treated exceptionally well. He lists his ailments—anemia, fluid retention, dark urine, broken skin—and says that he was up and walking in about a week’s time. He tells us he fainted the first time he turned on a water tap and heard the water rushing forth and describes how he felt wounded when a waiter in an Indian restaurant in Canada criticized him for using his fingers to eat.
The narrative briefly switches to the author’s point of view. The author describes Pi as a small, gray-haired, middle-aged man, who talks quickly and directly.
Pi’s narrative resumes, as he reflects on his boyhood in India. Pi relates that he was named after a pool. His parents did not like water, but he learned to swim from a family friend, Francis Adirubasamy, whom Pi calls Mamaji. Mamaji was a champion swimmer when he was young, and he instills in Pi a love for the ritualistic nature of swimming, stroke after stroke. Mamaji’s favorite pool in the world is the Piscine Molitor in Paris, and it is after that pool that Pi received his unusual name.
Pi’s father, Santosh Patel, used to run the Pondicherry Zoo, and Pi explains that he grew up thinking the zoo was paradise. He discusses the ritualistic habits of zoo creatures. Pi remembers the alarm-clock precision of the roaring lions and the howler monkeys, the songs that are birds’ daily rites, the hours of day at which various animals could be counted on to entertain him. He defends zoos against those who would rather the animals were kept in the wild. He argues that wild creatures are at the mercy of nature, while zoo creatures live a life of luxury and constancy. Pi tells us that the Pondicherry Zoo is now shut down and that many people now hold both zoos and religions in disrepute.
Pi describes the teasing he received as a child because of his full name, Piscine, which the other school children turned into Pissing, and how he trained his classmates and teachers to call him Pi by writing it on the chalkboard of each of his classrooms. Then we switch briefly back to the voice of the author, who tells us that Pi’s kitchen in Canada is extremely well-stocked.
At this early point in Martel’s novel, we have seen hints that Pi has endured something devastating and extraordinary, but we don’t know exactly what. The book approaches that nameless event from the outside in, providing information about Pi’s life before and after before getting to the heart of the tragedy itself. This technique builds up the suspense and allows us to get to know Pi as a normal boy and a fully fleshed out character, not just as a victim of circumstance. It also draws us firmly into the story: we want to know who Richard Parker is and what happened to him, and we wonder about Pi’s memories of India.
Though given only a brief mention, Pi’s reference of his thesis on sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria’s cosmogony theory is very important to the book as a whole. In essence, Luria’s theory of creation states that God contracted to make room for the universe. This contraction, called Tsimstum, was followed by light, carried in five vessels. The vessels shattered, causing the sparks of light to sink into matter. God reordered them into five figures, which became the dimensions of our created reality. This seemingly unimportant detail actually foreshadows the main event to come: the sinking of the ship, the Tsimtsum, which gives Pi the room to create his own version of the events that follow. Interestingly, like the five figures that make up reality for Luria, five characters on the lifeboat (including Pi himself) shape Pi’s story.
The zoo occupies an important place in Pi’s memory. Indeed, growing up in a zoo shaped his belief system, taught him about animal nature, and imbued in him many significant lessons about the meaning of freedom. Zoos are places of habit: there are chores that the keepers must perform every day, such as feeding and cleaning the animals and their cages, as well as animal rituals. Pi establishes early on the orderliness of the zoo and the comforting sense of regularity it gives him. Animals prefer the consistency of zoo life just as humans accustom themselves to the rituals and abundance of modern society, their own sort of zoo. Zoo animals rarely run away, even if given the opportunity, and they enjoy the abundant water and food. In the wild, by contrast, life is a constant battle for survival, a race against the odds and other creatures. Death is a constant presence and possibility. All of us living in modern society are essentially zoo creatures, defanged and protected from the wilderness waiting for us beyond the enclosure walls, walls from which Pi will soon be freed.
Explanations of Pi’s name take up nearly as much text as his philosophizing about zoos. The watery associations of Piscine Molitor’s full name are undeniable: piscine not only means “pool” in French but shares a derivation with pisces, or fish. As befits his name, Pi learns how to swim from Francis Adirubasamy, and he gravitates toward water. His full name performs two related and yet antithetical functions in the text: first, it emphasizes the idea that a very strong swimmer like Pi might realistically have survived in the ocean after a shipwreck; and second, it is such an odd name that is has the ring of allegory, positioning Pi as a mythic or fabled character. The literal, mathematic symbol pi, an almost impossibly long number whose combinations never repeat, also symbolizes Pi’s long journey, with all its variations.
Given the amount of energy that Pi devotes to the ideas of rituals and routine in the lives of zoo creatures, it is telling that he uses repetition to train his schoolmates and teachers into calling him Pi. One day at school, he leaps up during roll call and writes his full name on the blackboard; then he underlines his preferred nickname, Pi, and speaks it aloud. He carries out this act in each classroom, during every roll call, to the point where his fellow students start to follow along. For humans as well as animals, repetition proves to be a very effective teacher.