How Yann Martel starts “Life of Pi”
The power of first-person storytelling
(This essay is also available as a video on YouTube.)
Life of Pi begins with death — the death of a novel:
“It’s a misery peculiar to would-be writers. Your theme is good, as are your sentences. Your characters are so ruddy with life they practically need birth certificates. The plot you’ve mapped out for them is grand, simple and gripping. You’ve done your research, gathering facts — historical, social, climactic, culinary — that will give your story its feel of authenticity. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with colour, contrast and telling detail. Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. […] An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story, regardless of whether the history or the food is right. Your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it.”
Having failed at one novel, author Yann Martel talks about how he then travelled the world in search of the spark of inspiration for a new one. It’s the story of his search for that spark that pulls us into the novel we hold in our hands, right from the first paragraph, eventually leading him (and us) to the life of Pi.
I’m thinking about how the openings of great novels hook their readers. Yann Martel talks about the “spark that brings to life a real story,” and I’m working on that spark in my own work. What jumps out immediately about Life of Pi is Yann Martel’s use of the first-person narrator. But I do wonder how much a narrator, even a charming one, can really grab a reader.
So let’s see what we can learn about the power of first-person storytelling in the opening of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
I’m going to spoil a bit of Life of Pi: nothing much happens in the first, oh, 85 pages or so. So, you know, there go all my writing books. They say the first chapter of a novel has to kick off with compelling conflict right from the first line, because, you know, attention spans, and so forth. People don’t read.
And yet people did read Life of Pi. The year it won the Man Booker Prize, I was living in Montreal. Apparently so did Yann Martel, according to the news articles and the author info at the back of the book. Everywhere — on the bus, in a park — the tiger on the cover of Life of Pi stared back at me.
It was probably some combination of local pride and a major literary award that caught so many people’s attention. But I also think readers were hooked by that great premise: something about a tiger, a boy, a lifeboat, and the Pacific Ocean.
When we open the first pages of the novel, though, we’re about as far from the Pacific Ocean as we can be.
The book starts with an author’s note. It looks like a pretty standard introduction, like fine print. I read it, because I’m obsessive about these things and read books cover to cover, from the dedications to the acknowledgements, but maybe others skipped over it. Maybe they just wanted to get to the “real” story — whatever “real” means for a novel.
In the author’s note, Yann Martel talks about his writing process, as if he’d written a non-fiction book.
He says he wrote a bad novel, then threw it away. Then he travelled. He ended up in India, in the city of Pondicherry, in a café. He struck up a conversation with a friendly old man, and told him he was a writer. The old man then said, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”
The old man told that story to Yann Martel. Then Yann Martel returned home to Canada to find the person at the centre of that story. Yann Martel — or at least narrator Yann Martel — found his protagonist. He listened to his tale from start to finish, then agreed that it was, “indeed, a story to make you believe in God.” And with that astronomical claim, we turn to Chapter 1, where Yann Martel lets the protagonist tell his tale.
The new narrator rambles on about his university studies in zoology. He researched the thyroid function of three-toed sloths, and he regales us with minutiae about one of the slowest and most un-charismatic creatures in the animal kingdom.
He mentions how he was a great student, who only trailed behind someone he calls “a beef-eating pink boy,” a boy he loved. The narrator says he misses Richard Parker, who went away without ever saying goodbye, and who lives on in the narrator’s nightmares.
He alludes vaguely to a tragedy, and to waking up in a hospital in Mexico. He says he made his way home to Canada.
At an Indian restaurant, he scarfed down his meal with his hands. “Fresh off the boat?” the waiter said sarcastically, as if the narrator was a recent arrival with poor table manners. Ashamed, the narrator lost his appetite.
Chapter 2 interrupts the story. It’s all of one paragraph long, a handful of lines, and in the same italic font as the author’s note. It’s Yann Martel again. He shares his impression of the protagonist, his expressive face, and his enthusiastic, restless demeanour as he tells his story. “No small talk. He launches forth.”
The protagonist narrates again, and mentions how he was named after a swimming pool. It all began with his honorary uncle, the man Yann Martel met in the café in India. This uncle was a world-class swimmer who once lived in Paris. The uncle had little to say about the city, but he romanticized its public swimming pools.
The grandest of them all was the Piscine Molitor, the Molitor Pool, piscine being the French word for pool. The exotic French name Piscine Molitor impressed our narrator’s father, and so he named his son, our narrator, Piscine Molitor Patel.
Piscine’s father owned a zoo in the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens. It was a magical place to grow up in. Every day on his walk to school, Piscine passed reptiles and jungle cats and elephants, flowers and fruit trees, lush vegetation, and bird songs. He says animals don’t want to live in the expanse of nature. They prefer the domestic routine of their zoo habitats, much the same way that humans would rather live in houses than on the street. Unlimited freedom, he implies, can be terrifying.
He eventually started school. His name, Piscine, quickly turned into the word Pissing on the school yard. The other kids teased him without mercy.
So, the following school year, before anyone could call him Pissing, he walked up to the blackboard, and wrote that his name was Piscine Molitor Patel, or Pi for short. He then explained what pi was: a letter from the Greek alphabet and a mathematical symbol. In class after class, he repeated this routine, until each of his fellow students knew it by heart. Soon, other students were naming themselves after Greek letters like omega and epsilon. After that day, no one ever called him Pissing again. He was, and always would be, Pi. “In that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge.”
The term storytelling gets tossed around in all kinds of contexts. I’ve seen it used in advertising and social-media marketing. Filmmakers talk about visual storytelling. Years ago, I used to work in radio, and we’d talk about interview guests who were “natural storytellers.”
But true storytelling isn’t about perfect sentences and three-act arcs, or theories of communication and persuasion. That’s because the way we encounter stories most naturally isn’t through TV or books or movies or podcasts. It’s through the people in our lives.
There, storytelling is about telling a story. You know: “You’ll never guess who I ran into.” Someone we care about talks to us about an event in their life. It’s a moment of vulnerability, intimacy, and sharing. That moment of connection breaks down our guard. Once that happens, we’re willing to accept a lot of strange behaviour from this person we care about. We’re ready to accept lies, and pain, and love.
The conceit behind Life of Pi is that it’s a conversation or an interview, one that mimics that first-person act of sharing. First-person narration feels completely natural and familiar to us, and we go along with it. “You’ll never guess what happened to me” turns into “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Different words, maybe, but it’s the same promise to the listener, coming from a similar first-person point-of-view.
Yann Martel actually has two narrators who both tell us — the listener, the reader — that we won’t believe what happened to them. For Yann Martel the narrator, it’s the story of how he found inspiration. For Pi, it’s a story of being named after a swimming pool, growing up in a zoo, and surviving an unspeakable tragedy.
Both of these stories rely on the charisma of their narrators. But is that charisma enough to hold us for 85 pages of not much happening?
Conceptual vs Intuitive
A few years ago, I was at a screenwriting conference where Hollywood writer and teacher Corey Mandell gave a talk. He said there were two types of writers, each with different strengths.
Conceptual writers are strong at structure and premise but weaker at emotion and subtlety. Intuitive writers, meanwhile, are better at character psychology and observation but tend to lack strong hooks and structure. A mature writer integrates those two modes—the conceptual and the intuitive.
I’m tempted to say the early parts of Life of Pi skew toward that intuitive mode. But that label feels a bit flat, because there’s something else going on with Life of Pi beyond what’s on the page.
The first time I read the book, I was like the narrator Yann Martel: I plopped into this meeting with a person whose story I’d vaguely heard about. The fictional Yann Martel heard it from an old man in a café. I heard the premise from reviews and media coverage. We both wanted to know what kind of person Pi was, and what that trip must have done to him. So we both turned up in the same place: in front of Pi.
Then we dove, so to speak, into the life of Pi—like, the whole life, from the beginning. It’s not an accidental title. He rambles on about his fascinating, unusual childhood, and his fascinating, unusual name. He’s restless and he’s calm. He’s vaguely spiritual with a hint of wisdom. And we’re just waiting for when he’ll go underneath that surface and get to the tiger stuff. We’re waiting for the pay-off of that great premise.
We already know that Chapter 1 isn’t the first chapter of the story. But maybe the first chapter isn’t even in the book at all. Maybe it’s in the query letter an editor reads, or in the jacket copy we skim in the bookstore, or in the synopsis we read online.
And that’s all outside of what the author might consider their literary work. But maybe Yann Martel the author is taking advantage of this self-reflexive loop of how we learn about stories and consume them. I don’t know. This is a novel that’s also about itself, and it’s a novel that’s also about how the reader heard about the novel. Life of Pi begins before Life of Pi. The author’s note freely mixes fiction and reality.
Anyway, that’s all conceptual stuff. It’s part of what, in screenwriting and publishing, they call the “high concept.” You know, a great premise, a great idea.
There’s a massive difference, though, between a great idea and a great story. There’s a massive difference between my plot summary of those early chapters, and Yann Martel’s writing. The difference is where his art, and the power of first-person storytelling, come in.
Sure, the anticipation of learning about Pi’s adventure brought us here, and it invites us to go on a journey. That’s what got us to Page 1, and that’s obviously huge. But we’re only willing to turn to Page 2, or Page 350, because the person who’s leading us on that journey — page by page, anecdote by anecdote — turns out to be someone we actually enjoy spending time with.
The writing has a presence, and it holds our attention like eye contact. It has the spark of life. We’re social creatures so obsessed with life that we’re even willing to go to Mars to find more of it.
And it’s why, in the frame story around Life of Pi, Yann Martel talks about how he travelled the world looking for a spark: that thing that brings plot and character and description to life.
You can call it voice, or style, or craft, or something else.
But even if you have to get lost in your imagination, have dinner with your fictional character, and get stuck in a lifeboat with a tiger, or just get out of bed and stare at a blank page, whatever it is, go find that aliveness, then breathe it into the page. Because once it’s there, your readers will go to the ends of the earth with you.
I’d love to know if this look at Life of Pi gave you new things to think about for your own writing.
What did you think about the first few chapters of the novel? What was your reaction to the author’s note? What role do you think a premise has in how we experience a story, especially when spoilers are now such a big part of popular culture?
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