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LIFE OF PI CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND ANALYSIS
Patel lives in Scarborough. He is a small, dark man of about forty. He speaks quickly and goes into his story.
This is a brief interjection by the author giving the narrator’s physical appearance and location. It let’s the reader know that the previous chapter was the beginning of the author’s interview with the man in Canada referred to in the Author’s Note. These interjections support the reality of the story.
The narrator (Patel) talks about Francis Adirubasamy who is a close family friend. Patel calls him Mamaji (dear uncle). Mamaji was a champion competitive swimmer and tries to teach Patel’s parents and older brother, Ravi to swim. The family is unskilled and unenthusiastic, except for Patel himself, who is thrilled with both swimming and pleasing his “uncle.”
In addition to teaching swimming, Mamaji loves to talk about swimming and about the incredible swimming pools in Paris. Patel’s father loves to hear of them. Mamaji gloriously praises one pool in particular, the Piscine Molitor. So taken is Patel’s father with the dreamlike image of that pool, that his son becomes its namesake. We finally learn the narrator’s name: Piscine Molitor Patel.
India did have an Olympic swimmer in 1928, named Mulji. He may have been Martel’s model for Mamaji. It will become significant later in the story that Piscine is the only family member that can swim. The word piscine (pronounced pee-seen) means pool in French. However, the word piscine (pronounced pie-seen) means fish-like in English. This is an interesting play on the word in light of what is in store for Piscine in Part 2 of the novel.
Piscine gives a charming description of The Pondicherry Zoo, and explains how his father, a former hotelier, came to be its founder, owner, and director. Keeping a zoo is humorously compared to keeping a hotel, the zoo guests being unhygienic, sexually open, and never leaving tips.
Piscine loves growing up in the zoo. He sees beauty and perfection in nature. He explains that the animals in the zoo are “happy” and would find being “free” disagreeable because they have established their territories, free of predators, in their zoo enclosures. Like humans in their own houses, the animals each have their own “compressed territory where basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely.” Piscine goes on to cite instances where animals have had the opportunity the escape and did not. He says that animals in the wild do not have true freedom because they are restricted by time, space, predation, etc. and must constsntly defend themselves. He concludes saying that people have the same misconceptions about zoos as that have about religion.
Piscine begins his justification of zoos saying, “I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion.” He continues on for over four pages about animals in zoos, not mentioning religion again until the end where he compares religion and zoos once again, with no explanation. To understand the analogy, consider what Piscine said about animals in the wild compared to animals in the zoo. The zoo animals have a framework around them that makes it so much easier to meet their needs that they do not want to leave. Perhaps Martel is suggesting that humans also need something more than “freedom”, a framework (i.e. God, religion) to make it easier to meet human needs so that our lives are more than “lives of compulsion and necessity”