Life of Pi opens with a fictional author’s note, explaining the origins of the book. The author explains that while in India and floundering on the book he is trying to write, he travels to Pondicherry, where an elderly man, Mr. Adirubasamy, tells him he has a story for him that will make him believe in God. Adirubasamy tells the author about Pi, who the author manages to find in Canada, where Pi relates his story.
That story begins in Chapter 1. Pi describes his education at the University of Toronto, his double major in religion and zoology, and why he is so fascinated by the sloth, an incredibly indolent creature. He says that his great suffering has made all subsequent pains both more unbearable and more trifling. He loves Canada, although he misses India deeply.
In Chapter 2, the author intervenes as narrator, describing Pi telling his story. In Chapter 3 we learn Pi’s full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, and how he got it: he was named for a great pool, called the Piscine Molitor, in which his father’s business associate and close friend, Francis Adirubasamy, swam in while in Paris.
Pi’s father was a hotel manager, but left the business because he wanted to start a zoo, which he did in Pondicherry. Pi defends the zoo and attacks the common understanding of animals in the wild as free, and animals in a zoo as "unfree", for freedom in the wild is a myth: animals are restricted by their survival needs and their instincts.
When Piscine is 12, one of his classmates starts calling him “Pissing,” so when Piscine graduates to Petit Seminaire, he shortens his name to Pi. At Petit Seminaire Pi has a biology teacher, Mr. Kumar, who comes to the zoo often and talks to Pi about his atheism. He becomes one of Pi’s favorite teachers.
Pi describes the danger man poses to the animals in a zoo- the bad things he feeds them, the way he harms, tortures and kills them. One day Pi’s father takes him and Ravi to the big cat house and makes them promise to never touch or in any way go near a tiger. To make sure they understand the full danger, he makes them watch as the tiger kills and eats a goat. This is just the first of many similar lessons he gives to his sons regarding the dangerous animals in the zoo.
Pi explains that the key to the science of zookeeping is to get the animals used to the presence of humans by diminishing their flight distance—the minimum distance at which an animal wants to keep a perceived enemy.
Pi explains that, no matter what, there will always be animals who try to escape from zoos, even though generally animals do not wish for “freedom.” The escape attempts are often because the offending animal’s enclosure is unsuitable, or because something within its enclosure has frightened its Animals are always escaping from something, never to.
As an example, in 1933 a female black leopard who was being abused by her co-habitating leopard escaped from the Zurich Zoo and managed to evade capture and survive for ten weeks before she was shot.
The opening section of Life of Pi introduces many of the major themes of the novel, while providing a frame for the core of the story. The importance of storytelling as a theme is immediately apparent, as the line between fiction and reality is blurred in the opening Author’s Note, a semi-fictional, semi-true account of Yann Martel’s writing of Life of Pi. The author’s note also contains the claim that is at the heart of the novel—that this story will make you believe in God.
Whether or not the reader is, at the end, convinced of this, the characters are. The author/narrator, who never seems too skeptical, becomes a full-fledged believer. Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, who at first have little faith in Pi’s tale, at the end accept it, and by extension, God. In the first section, however, the reader knows none of this, nor has any idea how the story to come will instill faith. Yet by presenting this as an option, and by focusing on the themes of storytelling and the connections between science and religion, the book's opening paves the way for the final leap of faith that the novel will ask of the reader.
Foreshadowing is used extensively. The reader does not know much of the fantastic story to come, nor who Richard Parker is, but it becomes clear that animals, survival, and freedom will all be important in the tale. Pi argues against the belief that zoo animals are unhappy because they are not free, explaining that freedom in the wild, where one must always fight to survive, is a myth. This assertion foreshadows Pi's own later loss of freedom while at sea, and the ways that the fight to survive diminish his humanity.
The danger of wild animals is also previewed here: Richard Parker, yet to be introduced, will embody this danger, whether in a literal or a symbolic sense. If literal, the knowledge Pi and the reader gain regarding the brutality of tigers will make Pi’s journey and survival all the more miraculous. If symbolic, this section foreshadows how dangerous Pi himself will become as he loses his humanity in his fight to remain alive.
Finally, this section discusses rather extensively the connections between religion and science. Pi cannot keep his dual majors, religion and zoology, straight, although to the typical person they would seem fairly disparate. His favorite teacher, Mr. Kumar, sees the zoo as his temple. And Pi compares the misconceptions involved in zoos, and freedom, as similar to the misconceptions many have about religion. In this way, Pi opens the reader to the idea that belief in anything can be belief in God.