2 February 2013

Sending Out An SOS

I’ve been recently reading Life Of Pi. I like to let the fuss die down before I read a much-hyped book; I waited for more than 150 years to elapse before reading Oliver Twist. While I was reading Pi, the books that came to mind were Robinson Crusoe (obviously) and American Psycho. If you’ve ever read American Psycho and Life Of Pi, you may understand where I coming from. Or maybe it’s just me.

What intrigued me was the role of the castaway in literature. He, it’s usually a he, has endured for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The romantic idea of being a castaway is a persistent fantasy for many of us. The notion of throwing off the yoke of the daily grind and living a simple life, cut off from society is something that some of us do once a year, if that, thanks to Thomas Cook.

Pi is essentially a classic castaway, albeit on a lifeboat with a tiger, he has supplies, tools and a handbook, even Defoe didn’t give his character a instruction manual. However, it wasn’t Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe or even Jonah type of castaway that I was thinking about, it was the lone voice, the sane soul, the rebel who appear in many stories. Winston Smith in 1984, The Savage in Brave New World and you could even include Alex in A Clockwork Orange. People who don’t conform to ‘normal’ society. Myshkin in The Idiot, Chichikov in Dead Souls. You could argue that Patrick Bateman is a castaway in New York, he’s not living, he’s surviving. The castaway takes many guises. The authors themselves can be cast away from society; Defoe was imprisoned and pilloried for his non-conformist views. Orwell went from Eton and Cambridge to down and out, where he could have taken an easy road in life.

The loner, the one sane voice fighting against the system is a castaway as much as a marooned mariner. Science Fiction has a myriad of stories with a sole survivor fighting against the odds, drifting across a wasteland with only a dog for company. There’s even Jules Verne getting in on the act, although he has a few castaways on his Mysterious Island rather than a solitary soul. With all these stories the overwhelming theme is the indefatigable human spirit. Whether it’s a nuclear holocaust or a freak storm, the characters manage to survive, gather tools, build shelters and grow food. Pi’s description of his first fishing attempt and his first kill really get to the heart of the problem. If we need to kill other creatures to survive, but how many of us could?

In the eighties, around the time of the Nicolas Roeg film I read Lucy Irvine’s Castaway and Gerald Kingsland’s The Islander. Irvine wanted adventure but was more pragmatic, whereas Kingsland was chasing a idyll, a Robinson Crusoe existence. The reality nearly killed them.

Could any of us survive on a tropical island without modern conveniences having to catch our own food, never mind in a lifeboat with a fully-grown tiger? But it’s an idea that persists.


  1. Having once butchered a chicken and eaten live "lime" ants I can say that I can envision this kind of survival.

    My take on this eternal theme is the issue of perception. How we perceive ourselves and how we perceive our world. Necessities versus frivolity? We need to eat in order to survive... what are you willing to eat?

    These kinds of books strip away preconceptions and lay bare a character at his most vulnerable, that is, with only himself as company. This is scarier then anything you may be forced to swallow.

    I like the other books you mentioned as isolation/survival books. I think it is time to reread some of them. Thank you.

  2. I also thought that Life Of Pi was one step away from Stephen King, the tiger becomes a Clown, the boat a cellar, the ocean winter in Maine. A lot of horror books have one man/woman against the world, whereas films tend to have a group. Maybe I'll keep that for another blog.

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