‘I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals’ [Pi Patel in Martel's Life of Pi, p.4]
It’s about a tiger, of course; and a boy in a boat—Pi Patel, orphaned when the ocean cruiser he is travelling on sinks, who spends 272 days in an open lifeboat with various animals and a Royal Bengal tiger (by the end of his voyage, it’s just him and the tiger). Except that the final pages of the novel leads us to believe that this tiger is not literally a beast: two Japanese claims assessors coax a variant narrative out of Pi, in which he was not marooned with a number of animals, but rather with his mother, a murderous cook and a Taiwanese sailor. The whole novel, in other words, has been telling us a story about human beastliness by figuring its agents as animals. It is, in other words, an animal fable.
To put it another way: this is in large part a novel about what animals can tell us (us humans) in an entertainingly but nonetheless tightly focussed religious-didactic sense. Much of the early bulk of the book is devoted to little sermons—though often entertainingly rendered ones—on the nature of nature and its relationship to a belief in God. So, for example, Pi believes people are wrong to think animals prefer life in the wild to life in a zoo:
Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must be constantly defending and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context?A pendant to this observation on the conservatism of beasts:
For this is what animals are, conservative, one might even say reactionary. The smallest changes can upset them. They want things to be just so, day after day, month after month. Surprises are highly disagreeable to them. You see this in their spatial relations. An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard—significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more “freedom”, involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard. Both seek pattern and purpose. [Life of Pi, 16-17]But however beguiling Pi’s narratorial voice, we are not obliged to agree—not compelled to concur that animals have any interest at all in ‘purpose’, for example; or to buy into the notion that ‘freedom’, in a volitional or existential sense, is equivalent to ‘happenstance’.
Martel’s position channels perhaps the most famous recent (relatively recent) philosopher of the animal: Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: the Roots of Human Nature (1978; rev; ed., Routledge 2002). What interests me about one of Midgley’s core points—that although humans have transferred human qualities onto animals for millennia, tagging foxes as wily, snakes as devious, lions as courageous and so on, in fact actual animals are none of these things, they are only themselves—is not that it is (in any sense) objectionable, for it is not; but rather than a thesis so blindingly and obviously true needed stating at all. ‘Beasts are neither incarnations of wickedness nor sets of basic needs, nor crude mechanical toys, nor idiot children. They are beasts, each with its own very complex nature. Most of them fail in most respects to conform to their mythical stereotype.’ She adds ‘if then there is no lawless beast outside man, it seems very strange to conclude that there is one inside him. It would be more natural to say that the beast within us gives us partial order; the task of conceptual thought will only be to complete it. [Midgley, 38-39] Animal fables are a very ancient mode of human art. (‘Clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia have revealed the existence of collections of proverbs and fables featuring animals as actors some 4,000 years ago, and it is assumed that these tablets are based on even older material’, D. L. Ashliman, Aesop’s Fables (Barnes and Noble, 2003) p.xxi) But their very antiquity has created a state of affairs in which the personification of beasts has become almost second nature. Martel makes an effort to prise apart that automatic assumption in the open sections of his book; but the conclusion blurs the boundary in the service of a fundamentally theological investment in ‘oneness’. Robert Parker the tiger, it seems, literally is Pi Patel: Parker is Patel’s tigerish, powerful, enduring self.
That Pi is a child is also relevant, of course.
The deep affinity in our culture between children and animals—some children, at least, and some animals—is attested not only by a profusion of pets and teddy bears but also by the perennial popularity of stories, films and comic strips about more or less humanoid animals. … Many of these beasts, to be sure, whether of household, barnyard or forest, may have served, from the time of father Aesop to that of Peter Rabbit, as little more than allegorical stand-ins to point a moral concerning another species: our own. … Even so it tells us a great deal if children learn lessons and form relationships most easily by identifying with animals they often know, outside these fictions, only in zoos, dreams or the untamed forests of the imagination. For what is really at issue is relationships, not primarily of animal to animal but—even when no humans appear on the scene—of human to animals and ultimately, through the enlargement this primal relation can bring, of every human and animal being to every other in a world of which all are citizens alike. [Robert M Torrence, Encompassing Nature: a Sourcebook (Counterpoint Press 2002), 2]‘Yet it is often children in these stories—and often children slighted by the adult world—who are most in touch … with animals and other natural beings.’ We can read ‘slighted’ here to include, as in Pi’s circumstance, orphaned and abandoned in an open boat. Torrence goes on to argue that ‘such stories give voice to a tenacious myth of lost innocence’ that is:
both Romantic and Platonic: what is lost in growing up is an inborn remembrance of oneness with the surrounding world which we gradually, almost inexorably relinquish—all but the childlike few who are madmen, lovers or poets.’ We can forgive Torrence his gush, because this does illuminate The Life of Pi: the infant with the access to the spiritual oneness of all naturally enters into an animal fable.
Pi sees the world as bestial, but with the twist that this enriches and spiritualises his sense of the cosmos rather than degrades it. After a peroration to the beauty of three-toed sloths (‘the three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment … upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer’, 4-5) he adds:
A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall to reason, that fool’s gold for the bright—reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, as a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God. Everything comes back to God in this novel, of course (it’s strapline, lifted from the text and cleverly pitched, is ‘a story that will make you believe in God’); and that is one of the ways beasts are parsed in the imaginative logic of the whole. Pi’s experiences leave him a grotesque half-animal hybrid:
My body retained fluids and my legs swelled up tremendously. I looked as if had been grafted with a pair of elephant legs. But this is as much an apotheosis as anything: the Hindu pantheon, and Pi’s ruminations thereon, open up the semiotic possibilities of the bestial. Pi’s half-elephantine state is balanced by Ganesha’s (he has ‘a brass Ganesha sitting cross-legged’ next to his computer, 46). So on the one hand the novel makes great play with the foolishness of anthropomorphising animals. On the other, all the human agents are described in bestial terms: Pi is named ‘Piscine’ in honour of Francis Adirubasamy, a man so good at swimming his is called ‘Mr.Fish’; by the end of the novel Pi himself, his mother, the French cook and the Taiwenese sailor are all revealed as having animal alter-egos. When ‘Martel’ meets Pi’s son and daughter, he also meets (and seemingly on the same level) his dog and cat 
The same applies to the divine realm (the Holy Spirit is ‘a charismatic bird’, 52; a vision of the Virgin Mary is occasioned by a snowcovered branch ‘shaken by a breeze, or perhaps it was an animal’ 62). At low moments, Pi says he ‘would point at Richard Parker and say aloud “THIS IS GOD’S CAT!”’ )
What are all these animals doing, in this novel? They are enacting, or enabling, a fundamentally totemic vision of God. As Levi Strauss famously put it, in his still resonant study of the totemic aspects of early human culture, animals are a dominant mode of the totemic imagination because ‘the diversity of species furnishes man with the most intuitive picture at his disposal and constitutes the most direct manifestation he can perceive of the ultimate discontinuity of reality. It is the sensible expression of an objective coding.’ [Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966) 137].
This, I think, is what makes Life of Pi a much more interesting novel than its jaunty, fabulist exterior might suggest. The mournful tone with which the book ends (despite the crowd-pleasing revelation of future developments a third of the way in, ‘this story has a happy ending’ ) articulates a fundamental discontinuity that runs its fault-lines suggestively, resonantly, across the pantheist, upbeat theology its central Hindu/Muslim/Christian character espouses. True to his name, the signifier which looks like a hut, or a ‘refuge’  is actually irrational. The twin interpretation of the events of Pi’s life after the sinking is, of course, heavily weighted towards the grimly cannibalistic ‘real’ one, and away from the child-flavoured animal fable that constitutes most of the book. The two cannot be blithely elided. The function of the tiger, in a totemic sense, is to reveal a far from happy moral: at the end, this novel is about the ultimate discontinuity of reality
The Aesopic fable “The Man and the Lion” (the 80th)—one of the prototypes, clearly, for Martel’s novel—ends with the didactic flourish: ‘there are two sides to every question.’ But the two sides are not equally weighted.
There’s another angle, which takes its impulse from psychoanalysis, might take the novel as an almost psychopathological act of displacement. Here is Carrie Rohman on the function of ‘the animal’ in Freud:
The displacement of animality onto marginalized others operates as an attempted repression of the animality that stalks Western subjectivity … indeed, the development of Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century should be recognised as a logical response to the threats of evolutionary theory. The concept of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis operates as a modernist codification of the problems of animality in the human person. Freud himself hazards an explanation of humanity’s rise from its animal heritage and theorizes that our repression of organicism simultaneously deanimalises us and makes us human. Animality is consequently equated with neurosis in psychoanalytic terms, since one must repress it in order to become, and remain, human. … Freud offers a “cure” for animality’s presence in the human psyche. [Carrie Rohman, ‘Facing the Animal’, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (Columbia University Press, 2008), 63]The ‘cure’ the novel offers is superegotistical: for the long sections in which Pi, in the boat, performs animal dominance, blows his whistle, pisses and generally intimidates Robert Parker, he is manifesting in a concrete sense the action of the superego. Again, this leads to a bleak reading of the text: for very survival is shown to depend upon the rigorously enacted and re-enacted rituals of repression.
 Pi’s father thinks ‘animalus anthropomorphicus’ the most dangerous in the world: ‘we’ve all met one, perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is “cute”, “friendly”, “loving”, “devoted”, “merry”, “understanding”. These animals lie in ambush in every toy store and children’s zoo … They are the pendants of those “vicious”, “bloodthirsty”, “depraved” animals that inflame the ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned who vent their ire on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both cases we look at animals and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves in the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologians’ . Pi, or Martel, is here again channelling Mary Midgeley.
 ‘The phenomenon of totemism was one of the primary concerns of cultural anthropologists of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. As the anthropologists of that period collected ethnographic data, they noticed that non-literate societies commonly associated their own clans with natural phenomena, such as species of animals or plants, or natural bodies, or even geographical locations. Local inhabitants often explained this by saying a particular clan has “descended ” from the animal, plant, etc., and sometimes the association would involve complex ritual proscriptions, such as a prohibition against eating or killing the beings connected with one’s clan’ [David Pace, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Bearer of Ashes (Routledge 1983) 173]