“My suffering left me sad and gloomy.”
– Yann Martell, Life of Pi, 2003
Like Ishmael and Lord Jim, Pi is the survivor of an ambiguously legendary shipwreck. Pi is short for Piscine, which is French for swimming pool, which is a pretty tame name for a mythic seafarer. But the tiger…
People have asked me how the tiger in my novel Life of Pi came to be called Richard Parker. I didn’t just pull the name out of a hat. In fact, Richard Parker’s name is the result of a triple coincidence.
In 1884, the Mignonette , a yacht, set sail from Southampton, England, for Australia. She had a crew of four. In the South Atlantic, the seas were heavy. Wave after wave struck the vessel. Suddenly, she broke apart and sank. Captain, mate, hand, and cabin boy managed to scramble aboard a dinghy – but without water or provisions except for two cans of turnips. After 19 days adrift, starving and desperate, the captain killed the cabin boy, who was unconscious and had no dependents, and the three remaining survivors ate him. The cabin boy’s name was Richard Parker. His fate, in itself, is not particularly noteworthy. Cannibalism on the high seas was surprisingly common at the time. The reason Richard Parker–or, more accurately, “the case of the Mignonette “–has gone down in history, at least in knowledgeable legal circles, is that upon their return to England, the survivors (they were rescued shortly after killing R.P. by a Swedish ship) were tried for murder, a first. Up till then, murder committed under duress, because of severe necessity, was informally accepted as justifiable. But with the Mignonette, the powers-that-be decided to examine the question more closely. The case went all the way to the Lords and set a legal precedent. The captain was found guilty of murder. To this day, the only excuse for murder remains self-defense, and any British legal team that tries to argue otherwise will get a lecture from the judge about the Mignonette. Murder committed in extreme circumstances for the sake of sustaining life remains illegal (though those who commit it usually get light sentences). That’s one Richard Parker.
Fifty years earlier, in 1837, Edgar Allan Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It was a commission that quickly lost Poe’s interest. He finished it with a mix of reluctance and slapdash hurry that is not a recipe for great literature. Pym is a sloppy work that would have vanished without a trace if weren’t for its author’s fame. In the story, the ship upon which Pym and a friend set sail from Nantucket overturns in a storm. Survivors cling to the hull. After several days, hunger and despair push Pym and his friend to eat a third man. His name is Richard Parker. Remember, Poe wrote Pym 50 years before the sinking of the Mignonette.
And then there was the Francis Speight, a ship that foundered in 1846. There were deaths and cannibalism aboard. One of the victims was a Richard Parker.
So many victimized Richard Parkers had to mean something. My tiger found his name. He’s a victim, too – or is he?
My wife and I made the acquaintance of a fairly successful novelist who writes what might be called “survivalist fiction.” He’s a mountain climber, and he writes tales about disasters of one sort or another. Though he’s made a name for himself in this somewhat pulpy genre, he didn’t seem happy. I wish I’d written Life of Pi, he told us over coffee (repeatedly looking over his shoulder like he suspected somebody was spying on him). It’s the kind of book I could read with my kids. Well why don’t you? Because readers know my name; they know what to expect from me. How about a pen name, we suggested. You could become somebody else, write the books you really want to write, books you’re proud of. Because I don’t write that fast, he said. It takes too much of my time being me.