Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Copy Cats

Sometimes, on the hunt for literature, it's hard to tell predator from prey

When Yann Martel’s third book, Life of Pi, was published last year, it naturally included a photo of the author inside the dust jacket. His face unshaven, his hair a lushly unkempt mane, Martel squinted at the camera with the vaguely predatory gaze of a seasoned raconteur. He seemed ready to drink you under a table of your choosing, to tell a story that would give you religion or, if need be, to pounce and devour you. Adding to this air of free-ranging adventure and mystery, the accompanying text described Martel as a wayfarer who, “when he stays put, makes his home in Montreal.”

The wayfarer seemed to vanish entirely this past October, when Life of Pi earned Martel Britain’s highest literary honor, the Man Booker Prize. He was replaced, as newspaper photos demonstrated, with a slim, close-cropped, meek-looking individual, arrayed in bow tie, toothy grin and the demeanor of a rather sheltered librarian. With structural differences between its British and Canadian editions, the book itself was seeming mercurial too. One had to wonder: Just who is this Yann Martel? The question resounded in literary circles, especially when people began to learn that Martel’s first real literary success had come from another writer’s idea.

The idea is that a story about a young man confined at length with a wild animal should be interesting. The other writer is Moacyr Scliar, a long-venerated hero of Brazilian letters. Or perhaps that other writer is Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan; or Rudyard Kipling; or the nonsense poet Edward Lear; or maybe God—creators all of protagonist-meets-waterlogged-carnivore narratives. Scliar, at least, has considered legal action against Martel (we’re waiting to hear from the others). In 1981 Scliar wrote a novella called Max and the Cats, in which a furrier’s son, en route from Germany to Brazil by sea, is forced via shipwreck to share a dinghy with a jaguar. In Life of Pi, a zookeeper’s son, en route from India to Canada, is forced via shipwreck to share a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger.

So the question became: Just who does this Yann Martel think he is? In the Life of Pi author’s note, Martel mentions his debt to Scliar, “for the spark of life”; in a separate essay, he recalls not having read Max and the Cats, but having read about it and knowing a good idea for a story when he saw one. There was also, he confessed, an element of desperation. “I was thirty-four, had written two books which hadn’t sold. I’d constructed nothing in my life, really. Then I remembered this premise. And suddenly big chunks of the novel came together very quickly.”

The small boy–big cat predator-prey symbiosis story isn’t exactly an archetype, but it isn’t quite intellectual property either. Martel’s use of the idea for his novel was not illegal, and not necessarily immoral, but his winning a Booker for it might have been a little rude.

Many readers scrambled to find pre-Scliar literary precedents—not only for the plot itself, but for the widely and sometimes uncouthly practiced act of literary borrowing. Some came to Martel’s defense, or at least to the defense of his freedom to riff on another cat’s groove. But the criticism, meanwhile, was loud and abundant.

What the caféterati have put forth as a proper position to take on the matter is, laughably, genteel contempt for Martel’s behavior and gratitude for Scliar’s overdue recognition. Ilan Stavans, editor of a Scliar story collection, wrote in the Forward, “In our inauthentic culture, so much is déjà vu.” Didn’t someone else say that once? Stavans continued, revealingly, “The upshot to the whole affair is that Scliar was offended and Martel has tarnished his sudden success with controversy.” It is a relief to know that North America’s proudest literary values, the celebration of offense and tarnish, are indigenous and intact. The best literature is inherently instructive, and there is a lesson here: if anything is worse than being stranded in a lifeboat with a jaguar, it is being stranded in a lifeboat with a tiger, and if anything is worse than that, it is being accused of cultural predation just when you’ve become a famous novelist.

“Buttons are pushed in situations like this,” observes Ricardo Sternberg, a Brazilian-born poet who teaches at the University of Toronto. “It becomes one more example of how Brazil is exploited by the bad, bad Gringos.”

Martel could have responded glibly, feeding his detractors that all-purpose, meta-semantic postmodern quip “But that’s the point,” and started in on a diatribe about the poisonous media behemoth and pop-cultural identity politics. For now, at least, that doesn’t seem to be his style. The buoyancy and energy of Life of Pi owe less to Scliar’s book, which is quite different in both scope and intent, than to Martel’s apparent refusal to cower under the usually crippling notion that it’s all been done before. Already branded a brash neophyte, Martel may indeed be something of a copycat. But he’s no cynic.

Scliar, whose dust jacket photos are all the same—he is bearded, professorial, apparently at ease with his creative life and his unflappable fame—rightly decided that it wasn’t a case of plagiarism and seems to have shrugged the episode off. It remains to be seen whether Max and the Cats will return to print, perhaps stamped with the lure of the controversy: “If you liked Life of Pi, you owe it to yourself and to Brazil to read this!”

Far-flung nations often develop cultures and technologies in parallel; we should take it on faith that two able fictioneers, both with fabulist tendencies but a generation and a hemisphere apart, will, when given similar problems to solve, devise similar solutions. Actually, Martel tried to steer himself away from a big cat altogether, but in the final analysis, it just made the most sense. “Initially the main animal was going to be a small Indian elephant,” he wrote. “But that was too comical. Then I thought of an Indian rhino. But it was too stiff—there’s too little you can do with a rhino, and it’s a herbivore. I couldn’t see how I could have a herbivore survive in the Pacific.” Six months with a tiger was no problem.

Martel must have faced decisions that Scliar too had confronted. Both Pi and Max have moments of extreme self-pity, terror, delusion and resourcefulness, as any of us would in their situations, and as they must to maintain our sympathies. Each notes the absurdity of his predicament and recognizes that big cats sometimes look and behave like small cats. “No, not horrid. Beautiful, this jaguar,” Scliar writes. “Magnificent, this shadowy figure silhouetted against the sky, which was beginning to grow light.” Similarly, Martel as Pi: “What a stunning creature. Such a noble mien. How apt in full it is a Royal Bengal tiger. I counted myself lucky in a way. What if I had ended up with a creature that looked silly or ugly, a tapir or an ostrich or a flock of turkeys? That would have been a more trying companionship in some ways.”

The resulting relationships, of course, differ. As the protagonists inhabit their boats, so the authors inhabit their stories, inventing and personalizing at every turn.

Maybe I could tame him, he thought. And why not? Wasn’t the fact that the feline hadn’t devoured him an indication of a secret desire to be subjugated, of a tacit recognition of the supremacy of the human being …                 
After all, this was an animal that had been brought into captivity; that had been whipped into shape; that was used to obeying in order to get food. (Scliar)

I had to tame him … Didn’t I have here a perfect circus ring, inescapably round, without a single corner for him to hide in? I looked down at the sea. Wasn’t this an ideal source of treats with which to condition him to obey? (Martel)

To Scliar, sensitized to decades of military dictatorship in Brazil, the cats are signposted for symbolism; Max makes his journey to flee Nazi persecution, and the jaguar attending him seems iconic, like a political cartoon. Scliar’s tone, though comical, is also heavy with allegory and strains of sadness.

Pi’s emigration is compulsory too, but bespeaks the ambition for a better life and spiritual enrichment. The tiger is accordingly a wonderment—a threat, yes, but of a more natural, affirmative kind: “Actually, it was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment. Such a mix of ease and concentration, such a being-in-the-present, would be the envy of the highest yogis.”

Martel’s purview is an essentially apolitical examination of natural and religious order, of coping with life and loss, of the comforts of containment and the turmoil of freedom. Instinct and imagination become in Martel’s Pi the blunt and refined instruments of survival. His prose is bright-eyed and often curls with glee. His next book is apparently about a chimpanzee.

To be adrift, tucked under the gunwale of a finite enclosure, at risk of being consumed by your only available companion—isn’t that something like reading a good novel? Comparing these texts in search of imaginative copyrights proves only that Martel and Scliar share an innate sense of what makes stories effective. Maybe it also proves something about our disappointing capacity to receive them, to see the novelist as ever hungry, temperamental, sleek and stealthy—ready to ingest whatever the hunting life provides.