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Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Poe’s Pym (and “Berenice”) DAVID KETTERER T races of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) in other literary texts are not hard to discover. Jules Verne’s Le Sphinx des glaces (1897), Charles Romyn Dake’s A Strange Discovery (1899), and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936) are all sequels to Pym. In Henry James’s Golden Bowl (1904), Prince Amerigo recalls the conclusion of Poe’s narrative. And while Melville does not so specifically acknowledge the influence of Pym on Moby-Dick (1851), most informed readers are now comfortable with that assumption. Following in latter-day succession, the Canadian author Yann Martel (born in Salamanca, Spain) has acknowledged, in a limited way, the influence of Pym on his successful 2001 novel Life of Pi, but the full extent of that influence has not been recognized. This essay aims at establishing the homage-style presence of Pym throughout Martel’s novel, which emerges as a kind of palimpsest text: Pym is recurrently visible beneath its surface. Martel’s novel is about a sixteen-year-old Indian boy named Pi who survives the sinking of a cargo ship (with zoo animals aboard) on a lifeboat— in the company, at first, of a spotted hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. But after the hyena has eaten the orang-utan and the zebra, and the tiger has eaten the hyena, Pi and Richard Parker are the sole occupants of the lifeboat, left to drift for over seven months in the Pacific. (Pi’s ex-zoo-owner father and his mother and brother went down with the cargo ship.) This narrative was the deserving winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2002, and the resultant publicity was swiftly accompanied by a plagiarism controversy. In the last paragraph of his “Author’s Note,” Martel affirms of his novel, “As for the spark of life, I owe it to Mr. Moacyr Scliar” [Life of Pi (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 2003), xiv]. The Brazilian novelist’s Max e os Felinos (1981, published in English as Max and the Cats in 1990) is about a Jewish-German refugee who crosses the Atlantic in a boat shared with a jaguar. Martel claims not to have read Scliar’s novel before writing Life of Pi, but he had read at least one review of it. The most important source of Life of Pi—Poe’s Pym—is not mentioned in the “Author’s Note” or (in any direct way) in the novel of which the note is a part. My C  2009 Washington State University 80 P O E S T U D I E S , VOL. 42, 2009 Y A N N M A R T E L ’ S L I F E O F P I purpose here, I should emphasize, is not to accuse Martel of plagiarism. While Pi is consistently indebted to Pym it remains a fiction of great originality and power. In Pi it is explained that the tiger Richard Parker “was so named because of a clerical error” [132]. (Richard Parker was actually the name of the hunter who captured the tiger.) Martel has acknowledged in interviews that he gave his tiger the name in honor of a number of unfortunate real-life Richard Parkers and for the Richard Parker who is cannibalized in Pym. In 1846, when the Francis Speight sank, survivors resorted to cannibalism and ate a seaman named Richard Parker. In 1884, a seventeen-year-old cabin boy named Richard Parker was the victim of cannibalism on a dingy after the yacht Mignotette went down. The 28-year-old clerk Clifford Richard Parker was one of the second-class passengers who died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The earliest unfortunate Richard Parker (and a possible source for Poe’s Parker) would seem to have been the 30-year-old English sailor hanged in 1797 for his part in the Nore Mutiny. Coincidentally, Walt Whitman’s short story “Richard Parker’s Widow” (1845) derived from the same source that Melville used for information about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 80-86
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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