In a first-year creative writing course, each student was asked to bring their favourite book to class and speak to its qualities. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was one of my classmates’ selection. Her enthusiasm was contagious—until she mentioned, in passing, a plagiarism claim made against it. She didn’t know much about the case, other than that Martel’s book had taken cues from a Brazilian title, and that no formal lawsuit was ever filed. The possibility of plagiarism was the only thing that stuck with me, and for years I refused to read Life of Pi, or even watch the movie. But I was also curious—what was this Brazilian book that inspired such a widely successful Canadian title?
Turns out it was not a well-known title, but written by a popular writer, Moacyr Scliar. Max e os felinos was originally published in Portuguese in 1981, then translated into English (Max and the Cats) and French (Max et les chats) in 1990 and 1991. Though not directly, it was probably the English edition that eventually inspired Martel to write his Booker Prize–winning novel. And it was the Booker Prize that stirred up the controversy: no articles about Life of Pi even mentioned Scliar until the Booker announcement in October of 2002. The discussion started when Martel admitted the influence of Scliar’s story had on his. In the “Author’s Note” to Life of Pi, Martel thanks Scliar for “the spark of life”, and “in every interview I’ve done, print, radio and television, I’ve mentioned where I got my premise.” But perhaps this overstated the role Max and the Cats played in Life of Pi.
Both stories show the character’s early life, their trans-oceanic crossing, and the unfolding of their lives. Both young men emigrate from the country of their birth against their will. Max flees Germany after having an affair with the wife of a Nazi, while Pi’s father decides to sell his zoo and emigrate to Canada. The ships they travel on both happen to be carrying zoo animals—Pi’s because some of their animals are being sold to American and Canadian zoos, and Max’s because one of the other passengers is a zoo proprietor—and both sink under mysterious circumstances that are presumed intentional. Both men manage to find vacant lifeboats, and are joined by surprise passengers: a jaguar in Max’s case; and in Pi’s, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger, which soon kills the other animals. Max and Pi are thus each left to drift the seas with their felines. And both survive: Max is soon rescued by a passing ship, and Pi drifts into the shore of Mexico after 227 days. Both young men tell of their feline companions, and neither is believed.
But the similarities end there. “Martel devotes much more narrative space to [the cat incident] (211 pages out of 354) than does Scliar (17 pages out of 99).” Most of Scliar’s narrative focuses on Max’s life before and after the incident; Martel elaborates on Pi’s childhood but offers very little on his life in Canada. The part of Max that begat Pi is little more than an episode of the greater narrative. Further, Max and the Cats is “a political allegory in which [the jaguar] is a symbol of Nazism or of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil when Max and the Cats was first published.” For Max, the jaguar is a symbol of the Nazi rule. Life of Pi, above all, “repudiates the claim that reason is the sole arbiter of truth or reality.” For Pi, the tiger represents beauty and subjectivity, as in art and religion. While Max’s story is told in a strictly realistic style, racing through large chunks of time to fit an entire lifetime in a novella, Martel takes his time with Pi’s story, allowing an unnecessary amount of detail to populate some scenes, making for a self-validating magical hyperrealism.
But if the two narratives are different enough that a plagiarism lawsuit would be absurd, how did this become a “scandal”?
It boils down to three things: cultural protection, misreading, and ignorance.
Cultural protection is the most understandable. In an article for The New York Times, Larry Rohter, wrote that Scliar “lamented that though Brazil produced ‘a world-class literature that ought to be recognized on its merits, we only get attention when something extravagant like this occurs.'” This was the feeling of much of the Brazilian press at the time, citing instances of supposed plagiarism and cultural plundering by Daphne du Maurier, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon and others. The continuous and increasing influx of North American and European culture since the late twentieth century has caused many Brazilians to fear the loss of national culture. It is no surprise that when Brazilians saw the work of one of their own reflected in the highly acclaimed Life of Pi without permission they shook their fists and called for justice.
The issue of permission here is also key. In an essay about the incident, Scliar says it only bothered him that Martel never got in touch. “In Martel’s position I would have sought to inform the author,” he wrote. “In the preface … he attributes the ‘spark of life’ to me. But doesn’t go into details, doesn’t mention Max and the Cats.” Had Martel consulted Scliar on the matter, the entire debacle might have been avoided.
When a member of the press misreads something, they are surprisingly capable of propelling misinformation. Among the Brazilian press there was a feeling that Martel had dismissed the literary merit of Scliar’s work and, by extension, Brazilian literature in general. Around the time of the Booker Prize, Martel wrote an essay for the website of Powell’s Books on the origins of Life of Pi in which he referred to a negative review of Max and the Cats by John Updike as his only contact with the story. (More on this shortly.) In covering the case, Brazilian magazine Veja quoted the article: “The story did not get out of Martel’s head for years. ‘Oh, how this story could prosper in my hands,’ he lamented.” This single passage—the only line from the Powell’s essay that Veja quoted—is ripe with editorial bias. Martel certainly sounds dismissive. But the flavour of the wording here lends itself to a misinterpretation of Martel’s writing, and beyond what Veja chose to print, the tone is quite different: “Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise. … But—damn!—the idea had been faxed to the wrong muse. … I didn’t really want to read the book. … 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.” So Martel wasn’t simply being dismissive; nor was he relying solely on Updike’s review, or mulling over Scliar’s story for years. He in fact stepped away from Max for his own sake; to avoid being plagued by a great idea that had already been taken. Veja‘s startling misrepresentation of Martel’s feelings toward Scliar’s work are, unfortunately, fairly representative of the Brazilian feelings at the time.
But by far the most influential (and baffling) aspect of this case is the amount of ignorance in any account of the circumstances. It began with Martel’s own essay for Powell’s. As I mentioned, he attributes his only contact with Max and the Cats to a negative review written by John Updike for The New York Times Book Review. Except the only review The New York Times has on file for Max and the Cats is a glowing one written by Herbert Mitgang; Updike himself has no memory of reviewing Max; and neither The New York Review of Books nor The New Yorker (which could be confused for the NYT) could find reviews to match Martel’s description. “Clearly I got some of my facts wrong,” Martel wrote to defend himself. “So, I got it wrong. So what?” And, certainly, that he was simply mistaken—rather than being deceitful—is very likely. But his neglect to verify his sources before publishing the essay has caused both Scliar and himself excessive grief.
And the ignorance does not end there. It appears that, on or around the time of the Booker Prize, there were no critics who actually took the time to read both Life of Pi and Max and the Cats, neither in the Brazilian press nor in the English world. The early articles that reference Max and the Cats are all painfully inaccurate: The Guardian described Max as “a Jewish zookeeper [who] ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther.” Max’s religion is never stated; he is not a zookeeper; and his cat is a jaguar. In fact, the image of the black panther persists—even in the otherwise well-informed New York Times article by Larry Rohter, who interviewed Scliar personally. Rohter even admitted: “It is unclear if anyone has yet read the two novels side by side to see if they are alike beyond their shared plot line.”
How can a critic make a comparison—a plagiarism claim!—without having both works fresh in their mind? The entire incident evolved on hearsay. Martel read a review of Max and the Cats, but not the book itself, and several years later was inspired by his perceived version of the premise to write Life of Pi, which went on to win the Booker Prize. The Brazilian press catches wind of this, half-remembers the twenty-year-old novella, and without reading Pi calls out, “Plagiarism!” This sparks an international debate, but every critic who weighs in does so too quickly, without taking the time to read both books, making claims based on other uninformed articles that are already around.
As time passed, the debate settled—not only because there was some distance from the incident, but because critics actually had the time to read. In 2004, Florence Stratton claimed that “critics who had read both novels found the similarities to be superficial.” And as Peter Yan put it, “The Booker Prize controversy is a lesson in reading.” Perhaps; but it was also an example of modern journalism. Hungry for news and eager to get the first scoop, periodicals often run bits of news, especially on social media, that are unverified. It’s unfortunately common to see a legitimate newspaper run a story fabricated by The Onion. Worse still, even articles that seem well-informed rarely cite their sources. How long can this go? Until when can our hunger for immediate news surpass our need for verifiable, verified facts, to the point that a ten-year old controversy of misinformation resurfaces with the release of a film adaptation? My own prejudices against Life of Pi ended only when I read Max e os felinos and Life of Pi in sequence. How many people are willing to take the time and do the same? The number, I think, is insignificant.