Monday, February 11, 2008
I have met my friend Piers Paul Read (Jay) each time I have been to London. He is the author of the book “Alive”. I have been always welcomed to his beautiful house where he and his wife Emily live. I´m very fond of them.
As we always do, we talked about “Alive”. I asked him how he got to write the book, how difficult it was, what the process of writting such a book had been.
He told me that he was approached by Ed Burlingame from Lippincot, at that time a large publishing house, who had read in the media the news of our ordeal. Some of our parents and friends had organized a competitive bid to choose a writer that would guarantee the truth of the story, that would guarantee that the friendship and faith that inspired us in the mountain would emerge from the book, that would respect the memories of the dead, would also avoid scandal and at the same time offer a reasonable check to the survivors. When they came to Uruguay their offer was clearly the best, although not financially. But Piers Paul Reed, a British catholic writer was the winning card.
His first trip to Uruguay was made on February 1973; he met the survivors and friends at a nice welcome party at Carlos Paez´s Casa Pueblo in Punta del Este. He was impressed by the nice welcome in a beautiful mild evening watching the sunset from Casa Pueblo. Then he started to work. I remember we told everything to Piers in very long individual and group interviews. He says that we were very fragile and had a compulsive need to talk. When asked why we were so open to him he wonders if it was because he was not our father, not a priest, not a therapist, just someone that wanted to listen to us. And he indeed was a good listener. I had just heard the tapes of his interviews to me made 35 years ago. I said then nothing different from what I say now about the odyssey. In those tapes, he continuously asked me about my political views and about my understanding of the dynamics of our group.
He went back to London with 80 hours of tapes. And he worked on a big matrix, on one entry he listed all the survivors, and on the other entry he listed the events, and then he started knitting a tremendous patchwork. By the end of that year, he finished his draft and came back to Montevideo to show his manuscript. He says that it was a terrible week; most of us were disappointed with his presentation of our story. According to him, some of us thought that their role in the mountain was not accurately depicted; others said that the spiritual dimension of the ordeal was not there, others said that people in Uruguay were going to be scandalized by all the details that were given on what we fed on. Some even said that the Uruguayan society would stigmatize us and we would have to leave the country. Others even feared the reaction of the relatives of our friends who did not come back. Well, it was very difficult for all of us to be happy with the book at the onset; it is really very difficult to write in just a few pages what the 16 of us went through during our ordeal. But on the overall, I feel he did a great job, I feel that the book conveys a good idea of what happened to us up there.
He told me that the book was published without any changes from the manuscript we read. Just a small caveat was added in the acknowledges of the book:
“………some (of us) felt that the faith and friendship which inspired (us) in the cordillera do not emerge from the book………perhaps, it was beyond the skill of any writer to express our own appreciation of what (we) lived through……………”
And as we all know, his book (and ours too) has been a tremendous world wide success. It has been translated to more than 50 languages, although Piers himself does not recall how many copies of it have been sold.
Piers is very proud of his book, but curiously, one of the few negative critics came from William Golding, the author of the Lord of the Flies, who reviewed Alive for a London magazine some time ago. In the Lord of the Flies, William Golding writes about an hypothetic case in which a group of English schoolboys get stranded in a desert island. The survivors fail to organize themselves and finally turn into savagery. But we did not turn into savagery, we organized ourselves to survive and we made it, and we were always human beings. Maybe Golding didn´t like Piers book because it went against his main hypothesis. Ok, we didn´t degenerate into savagery, is it because we were not pushed that far? Piers says we didn´t and we wouldn’t have turn into savagery, and he is the one person who understands best what happened up there. I have to admit I have not read Golding’s book. I have just added it to my reading list.