This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

November 10, 2002 — You've got to admit, it's an unusual premise for a book: a little boy survives a shipwreck and winds up sharing a lifeboat with a large, predatory cat. Sound familiar?
      Well, if you're thinking it's the premise of one of the most talked–about novels of the year, "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, last month's winner of the Booker Prize, you're right. But it also turns out to be the plot of book called "Max and the Cats," by esteemed Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar ... which was published in 1981.
      But before you jump to the conclusion that this is a blatant case of plagiarism — a theft, in other words, in which the burglar has no intention of being caught — consider this: Martel even thanks Scliar in an author's note in "Pi." And, in numerous interviews, when asked where in the world he dreamed up such a plot, he readily points to "Max and the Cats."
      "This is how it happened," he writes in an e–mail interview with Orin Judd at "Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar ... Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought 'Man, I could do something with that.'"
      And do he did, changing what was a jaguar in Scliar's book into a tiger in his. The rest is now history.
      The problem is that it's history repeating itself, say some very annoyed Brazilians.
      According to a New York Times report by the paper's man in Rio, Larry Rohter, "The literary press here is suddenly awash in indignant accusations that Mr. Martel ... is guilty of improperly 'copying' or 'borrowing' from the work of one of Latin America's most distinguished novelists."
      The very audacity of Martel's public comments only highlights how little respect is given to Brazilian culture, say some Brazilians, and they cite a long string of such indignities as evidence. They claim, for example, that Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, 'Rebecca,' was plagiarized from Brazilian Carolina Nabuco's 1934 book "The Successor." "The novels have identical plots and even some identical episodes," says Rohter in The Times. (Nabuco, apparently, translated her book into French and sent it to a publisher in Paris ... who turned her down, but went on to publish du Maurier's book.)
      And it's not just literary culture being slighted, Brazilians complain — "striking similarities" between British rocker Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and Brazilian singer Jore Ben's "Taj Mahal" led to an off–the–record payment by Stewart to Ben. And Rohter says "similar complaints of plundering have been expressed here about pop artists ranging from Paul Simon to Talking Heads."
      Well, it's one thing — one fairly obvious thing — to steal a tune, although it can be a fine line between "plundering" a culture and paying it homage. But even before getting to the notion of arrogance toward a culture, is it a crime, simply, to recycle ideas?
      Clearly, Martel thinks it's okay. He told his hometown newspaper, the Toronto Globe & Mail, that he doesn't "feel like a fraud," and the Associated Press that, "I don't feel I've done something dishonest."
      But just as clearly, Martel seems to think there's the appearance, at least, of impropriety — looking back over the many interviews he gave prior to the Times story breaking, he certainly brought up the Scliar book a lot. What's more, he emphasized that he's never read Scliar's book, which seems a little odd if he thought it sounded like such a great book. But in interviews, he keeps citing that "very lukewarm review by John Updike" in the New York Times, as he told The Guardian, that "oozed indifference," as he told
      Which makes things seem all the more suspicious, because Updike says he never reviewed the book, and the only review of it that appeared in the Times, by Herbert Mitgang, is not "lukewarm" at all — it's a rave that called the book "brilliant."
      Still, even if Martel's lying and he did read the book, does it matter? I'm reminded — to return to the idea of plundered music for a moment — of a John Lennon quote. Asked if he minded the fact that his songs were regularly ripped off, he said, "Well, there are only eight notes to go around."
      Likewise, it's often said there are only so many plots in literature — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy does or doesn't get girl back, for instance. And to a certain extent it's true.
      But to me, it comes down to this: A little boy survives a shipwreck to end up sharing a life raft with a large, predator cat.
      It's not exactly a generic premise, and highlights how some ideas are just so unique and evocative it's silly, if nothing else, to re–use them so precisely — writing a story about a man who wakes up to find out he's turned into an insect, for example. How could anyone read such a story and not think of Kafka? It seems too distracting a starting point to this critic. What's more, I'd suspect it would to Martel, too. After all, an awful lot of people know the Kafka story, "The Metamorphosis." But how many people know "Max and the Cats"? Maybe those Brazilians have a complaint after all. Maybe it was a kind of cultural arrogance that made Martel think he didn't have to make Scliar's premise more his own, which it seems to me he could have easily done.
      In any event, a positive outcome to all this would be if people discovered the work of Scliar, whom everyone seems to have forgotten is also the author of the acclaimed 1980 novel "The Centaur in the Garden," which was widely translated.
      And meanwhile, what does Scliar think about the whole Martel mess?
      He told the Times, "In a certain way I feel flattered that another writer considered my idea to be so good, but on the other hand, he used that idea without consulting me or even informing me. An idea is intellectual property." In the end, however, he decided not to sue.
      As for Martel, he is said to be traveling and unavailable for comment. There is no confirmation, meanwhile, that his next book is about a crazy, peg–legged ship's captain pursuing a big, white whale named Toby.

Last Week’s Column: DISCOVERING NEW & UNDERAPPRECIATED LITERARY ADS You can learn an awful lot from reading advertisements for books. But will it have anything to do with the book?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.