Life of Pi

Yann Martel
Summary

Part One: Chapters 21–36

Summary Part One: Chapters 21–36

In preparation for the move to Canada, Pi says, Mr. Patel sold off many zoo creatures and made arrangements to bring some of them across the Pacific in a cargo ship with the family. Pi describes setting sail on June 21, 1977, and being very excited. He mentions his mother’s apprehension about leaving the place she has lived all her life to travel into the unknown.

The author, again in first person, meets Pi’s two children: Nikhil and Usha. Usha, age four, is holding an orange cat in her arms. The author says Pi’s story has a happy ending.

Analysis

This section begins with two of the most important phrases in the entire text: “dry, yeastless factuality” and “the better story.” Both come to the author directly from Pi, and their significance is underscored by the fact that they are repeated within two pages. The two phrases are opposite poles on the spectrum of storytelling. At one end is boring reality, which is as flat as unrisen bread. At the other end is a version of reality that has been enlivened by imagination, improving the story—it becomes a full, hearty, risen loaf of bread, so to speak. When the options are presented in these terms, it is easy to see which is the more tempting. The risen bread is far more appetizing, while the flattened, yeastless option looks about as appealing to eat as cardboard.

The compulsion to invent a better story, to improve one’s reality and make it more livable, is such a deep-seated and natural instinct, Pi says, that even animals do it, whether unconsciously or not. For example, a lion doesn’t think a human is really a lion. But given the right conditions and the appropriate circumstance, a lion may become willing to accept the human as one of its own. Faced either with life as an orphan or life with a foster mother, what lion cub wouldn’t accept a dog as a maternal figure? The fiction improves his life immeasurably.

Pi strongly recognizes the saving grace of a myth or story to enrich “yeastless” factuality, and he knows that believing in a story requires a leap of faith. This is precisely why he is so perturbed by the idea of agnosticism, which in this section comes up for the second time in the novel. Agnostics, as Pi explains it, are rational to a fault. They do not trust anything that they cannot see, taste, or experience. They are wedded to factuality—indeed, they prefer it—and that is the main reason why Pi feels such a strong distaste for them. They are completely unwilling to take an imaginative leap, in either direction.

Pi’s inclination toward spicy, robust cooking is a strong metaphor for his storytelling abilities. The dichotomy between yeastless, dry bread and fluffy, enriched bread is amplified by the fact that, as the author tells us, Pi is a good cook, one who uses abundant spices—so much so that the author sweats and even has digestive trouble when he eats Pi’s food. Pi also seems to take great pleasure in adding condiments (relishes, chutneys, and so on) to the table. Pi’s story, which we are about to get to in Part Two, is one in which he has added yeast, spices, herbs, and anything else he can to make it palatable; apparently the facts alone would be hard to swallow.