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.