Before, there was the novel, Life of Pi. Now there is a new movie, Life of Pi. But before them. Before Yann Martel picked up the pencil to write about a tiger in a lifeboat with a boy on the open sea, in the beginning, decades before that, there was Moacyr Scliar.
Moacyr Scliar, a Brazilian writer who passed away last year, in 2011. According to Wiki:
Scliar is best known outside Brazil for his 1981 novel Max and the Cats (Max e os Felinos), the story of a young Jewish man who flees Berlin after he comes to the attention of the Nazis for having had an affair with a married woman. Making his way to Brazil, his ship sinks, and he finds himself alone in a dinghy with a jaguar who had been travelling in the hold
A shipwreck, alone in a dinghy on the open sea with a ferocious cat, eventual rescue. Sounds familiar. No?
Scliar's novel Max And The Cats is a great read. And has a wonderful, spare plot. Forgive me, if you can, this spoiler (or skip the blockquote entirely):
Max is forced to leave Nazi Germany after he and his friend, Harald, have an affair with Frida, whose husband denounces them to the secret police for inappropriate behaviour. He flees the country on the Germania, a ship bound for Santos, Brazil, with zoo animals in the hold and very few passengers, but the captain is involved in an insurance scam, and the ship is deliberately sunk. Max finds a dinghy on board with some provisions, and manages to lower it into the sea. The next day the sun is beating down on him, and he fears for his life without cover. He reaches out for a large closed box that has fallen from the ship next to him, hoping he can use it for shelter, but when he opens the padlock, something jumps out of the box and into the dinghy, knocking him unconscious. When he opens his eyes, "[t]he howl that he let out resounded in the air." Sitting on the bench in front of him is a jaguar.
Max and the jaguar are stranded on the dinghy together for days, with only some basic provisions stored in the dinghy for emergencies. Max decides to start fishing to make sure the jaguar is not hungry, and briefly wonders whether he could train him. A shark approaches at one point, but the jaguar bats it away, saving them both; Max is so grateful that he hugs the animal, then pulls himself away in horror. At the very moment Max decides he cannot stand being alone with the jaguar anymore—after watching him tear a seagull apart—the jaguar appears to have a similar thought, and they both lunge at each other, colliding in midair. Max loses consciousness, and when he opens his eyes finds he has been rescued by a Brazilian ship. He asks about the jaguar, but the sailors assume he is delirious.
It's a short novel, fewer than 100 pages. It's tightly written and conceived. It is not preaching or teaching anything. It's a metaphor about Nazism. Or totalitarianism generally. It is not filled with philosophical ponderings. I consider it a small, important gem.
Years pass. Max and the Cats is a Brazilian classic, part of the canon. Enter Yann Martel. And his Life of Pi (2001). And the controversy erupts. From whence, from what inspiration did Life of Pi arise, particularly the part about the tiger on the lifeboat? Nobody is debating the first third of the plot, it's coming-of-spiritual-age journey, or the flashback, which tells you that Pi survived the events at sea. Again, Wiki:
In a 2002 interview with PBS, Martel revealed his inspiration for his novel, "I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small 's' but sort of with a capital 'S' – something that would direct my life." He spoke of being lonely and needing direction in his life. The novel became that direction and purpose for his life.
Martel also stated that his inspiration for the book's premise came from reading a book review of Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella Max and the Cats, about a Jewish-German refugee who crossed the Atlantic Ocean while sharing his boat with a jaguar. Scliar said that he was perplexed that Martel "used the idea without consulting or even informing me," and indicated that he was reviewing the situation before deciding whether to take any action in response. After talking with Martel, Scliar elected not to pursue the matter. A dedication to Scliar "for the spark of life" appears in the author's note of Life of Pi.
Hmmm. When he was initially confronted with the obvious similarities of the two books, Martel lashed out:
In an essay published on the Web site of Powell's City of Books, an independent bookstore (www.powells.com), Mr. Martel wrote that even though the review he recalled ''oozed indifference,'' Dr. Scliar's concept had ''the effect on my imagination of electric caffeine'' because of its ''perfect unity of time, action and place.'' But because he also felt a ''mix of envy and frustration'' that he had not thought of the idea himself, he decided initially to stay away from ''Max and the Cats.''
''I didn't really want to read the book,'' Mr. Martel wrote. ''Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if Updike had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect? Best to move on.''
It turned out later that Updike had not written a review of the Scliar book. No matter. Martel won the Mann Booker prize and he will now benefit hugely from the movie.
There is probably nothing wrong with deriving inspiration from someone else's work. The idea of a fierce cat alone in a lifeboat with a boy is unusual, but let's try to remember that sampling of music (with or without permission), paraphrasing, borrowing (with or without permission), making derivative works, making works that are comments on other works, and so on is entirely common. And has been for centuries. The point here isn't something about (hidden or smoothed over) theft of intellectual property. It's about being forgotten. It's about memory.
It would be nice if instead of being forgotten, Moacyr Scliar, could be remembered for a great work. If his novel could actually be read. If its crispness could be contrasted with some of the credulous nonsense in Ang Lee's movie. But most of all, it would be wonderful if Moacyr Scliar's novel could just be appreciated for being the small, creative gem that it is.