Life of Pi began with some casual reading. Yann Martel was perusing through John Updike’s rather negative review of Max and the Cats, a story about a Jewish family who run a zoo in Germany during the years leading up to the Holocaust. They decide to leave Germany, but the boat they take sinks, and only one member of the family survives, ending up on a lifeboat with a black panther.
Martel describes loving that premise, and being disappointed that he had not had the opportunity to do it better than the author. Years later, while in India, without a story he believed in or much hope, he suddenly remembered this premise, and the rest of Life of Pi came to him. For the next two years, in India and Canada, he researched the essentials—zoology, religion, survival at sea—and wrote what became an internationally best-selling novel.
Life of Pi was published in 2001, Yann Martel’s third published work of fiction, and the one upon which most of his reputation is built. It was awarded Canada’s 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, in 2002, England’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, and in 2003, South Africa’s Boeke Prize. Critical reception was largely positive, focusing on Martel’s ability to make a fantastical story at least plausible.
Some critics, however, found the theological preoccupations in the novel heavy-handed, unnecessary, inconsistent, or overly simplistic, while others thought that he successfully and deftly dealt with a potentially controversial subject, and admired his courage in writing an explicitly religious book in a predominantly secular country.
Because of Martel’s acknowledged debt to Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats, there was a brief scandal at the height of Life of Pi’s popularity. The Brazilian press accused Martel of cribbing Max and the Cats, but the similarities between the two books were slight, and so the charges came to nothing.