21 January 2013

Boy and Beast on a Boat

On the one hand, we have Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi, recently made into a highly-touted film which has garnered 11 Oscar nominations. Published in 2001, the novel tells the story of an Indian boy and a tiger on a lifeboat.

On the other hand, we have Moacyr Scliar, the Brazilian author of Max and the Cats, published in 1981 and translated into English in 1990. Considered Scliar’s finest work, this novel tells the story of a Jewish boy and a panther on a lifeboat.

All of which sets the stage for the hoopla in Brazil surrounding the recently-released film based on Martel’s novel, distributed here under the title As Aventuras de Pi. You can’t open a newspaper or magazine review of the movie without reference being made to the plagiarism controversy which began shortly after Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. Martel said back then, and maintains even now, that he never read the Scliar book. He only read an unfavorable review written by John Updike in the New York Times Book Review. When it was pointed out that no such review was ever written, Martel changed his story, saying that he didn't remember where he had read about the Scliar book, only that it was "a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer." Ouch.

I guess this is where I launch into a spirited defense of Moacyr Scliar, a highly respected and widely translated author whose work I have read and enjoyed — but let’s all back up a minute. Because when you think about it, what ideas haven’t been recycled in literature? Who inspired whom? Exactly how fresh is the idea of a boy and a beast on a boat? Maybe Scliar watched Werner Herzog's 1972 film Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which tells the story of a 16th-century expedition in Latin America, and ends with the main character on a boat with monkeys. Or maybe Scliar read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Lad and the Lion, published in 1914. That story tells of an old king’s grandson, Michael, who spent his early years on a derelict ship in the company of a lion. For that matter, maybe Burroughs read Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, published in 1911, a story which ends with the main character sailing away in a boat with a chattering ape. Maybe everyone’s taken their inspiration from Noah’s Ark, for goodness sake. There’s a story of people cast adrift with animals if ever there was one.

Let’s come back to the present day. It’s not the alleged plagiarism by Martel of Scliar’s work that has everyone in a snit here in Brazil. It’s that Moacyr Scliar was so arrogantly brushed off as a "lesser writer." That really gets people’s goat here — oh, jeez, I didn’t mean that to sound as if I were plagiarizing A Goat on a Boat, a wonderful children’s story by Brian Dowd. Really, you have to be so careful nowadays!

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