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Yann Martel on tigers, cannibals and Edgar Allan Poe

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Richard Parker would appear to be a name to avoid if one proposes going to sea. Not only were two men of that name victims of maritime cannibalism in the Victorian age, but Richard Parker is also the name of the shipwrecked tiger in Life of Pi, Yann Martel's astonishing Booker Prize-winning novel.

Date: 14 May 2002

Richard Parker would appear to be a name to avoid if one proposes going to sea. Two Richard Parkers were victims of maritime cannibalism - one a fictitious character by Edgar Allan Poe and the other, a real life victim aboard the Mignonette 100 years ago. And that's just the start of it, so it was no coincidence when Yann Martel chose this for the name of the shipwrecked tiger in the Booker Prize winning, Life of Pi.

A solitary lifeboat is left bobbing on the surface of the wild blue Pacific. In it are five survivors; a sixteen year-old boy called Pi, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, a female orang-utan and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger.

Richard Parker is quite some travelling companion:

'This tiger burns bright. He is everything Blake would want in a tiger, and more. He growls, he glows with life-force, he roars, he's beautiful, he rips things apart. Which of his fellow-passengers on the Noah's Ark from Hell will be his dinner first, and how will Pi avoid this fate, and the other fates in store - dying of thirst and exposure, starving to death, giving up in despair? Here the story turns both lyrical and, literally, visceral. This book has guts. But Pi is an ingenious and practical boy, and he makes use of the materials to hand. Suffice it to say that if you ever need to know how to train a tiger using the whistle from a life-jacket, this is the book for you.'
(from Margaret Atwood's review of Life of Pi in the Sunday Times)

But what's in a name? We asked Yann Martel:

'Indeed, the choice of Richard Parker as the tiger's name was no coincidence. In fact, it's the result of a triple coincidence.

'Richard Parker was a sailor boy who was killed and eaten by Captain Dudley and the other two survivors of the sinking of the Mignonette, a yacht that was on its way to Australia. The time is the 1870s if my memory serves me right. The Mignonette sank and after surviving 16 days in a dingy, the captain and his two mates sliced Richard Parker up and ate him.

'This, in itself, would not make R.P. memorable. Cannibalism in the high seas was quite common at the time. The reason Richard Parker (or, more accurately, the "case of the Mignonette") has endured is that upon their return to England, the survivors (they were rescured by a Swedish ship) were tried for murder, a first. Up till then, murder committed under duress, because of extreme necessity, was informally accepted as excusable. But the powers-that-be decided to examine the question more closely. And so the case of the Mignonette went all the way to the Lords and set a legal precedent. The three were tried and found guilty of murder.

'To this day, the only acceptable excuse for murder is self-defense. Murder committed in extreme circumstances for the sake of sustaining life remains illegal - though those who commit it usually get light sentences. The case of the Mignotte is the standard legal rebuttal for those who would invoke such a defence. So that's one Richard Parker.

'Thirty or forty years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe published his one effort at a novel, an awful work entitled the Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym. If Poe hadn't written it, it would have vanished without a trace. In it, Pym and a friend set sail from Nantucket. Their boat overturns and they survive several days on the hull with a third person. But the hull of a boat is a tough place to be, so Pym and Co. eat the third man. His name is... Richard Parker. Remember, Poe wrote Pym forty years before the sinking of the Mignonette.

'And then a ship named the Francis Spaight foundered and one of the survivors was named Richard Parker (or did he die? Can't remember).

[Ed. Yes, another one bites the dust: he died when the Francis Speight - on board which a number of seamen had been eaten - foundered in 1846. Indeed, a further Richard Parker was hanged for his role as ringleader of the Nore mutiny in 1797.]

'So many Richard Parkers had to mean something.'