The Big Idea: Peadar Ó Guilín
A number of years ago I interviewed two survivors of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which in 1973 crashed in the Andes and then remained lost for 72 days, forcing the survivors of the crash to eat the bodies of the dead to survive. They made a movie out of the story called Alive, which some of you may recall. You might think that having to do that would change something in a person, but the two men I interviewed were, as it happened, pretty much completely normal. They just happened to have made a particular survival decision at a critical time.
PEADAR Ó GUILÍN:
My big idea is not mine at all. I stole it from a Frenchman, four hundred years dead and 350 out of copyright. There’s evidence of the theft, right there on the very first page of my first book, The Inferior:
In that people the most natural and honest of virtues and abilities are alive and vigorous; those same virtues that we have warped and adapted to our own twisted tastes.
Michel de Montaigne: On Cannibals
He’s talking about cannibals. He’s comparing them to civilized folk and wondering whether the fact that a savage’s dinner can talk back to him makes him any less noble than we are. I wanted to find out, and so, I set about creating a laboratory. I’ll provide instructions so you can try it for yourselves:
1) Take one primitive human tribe. Deprive them of all edible plants and animals.
2) Surround them with hundreds of equally primitive, equally hungry groups of perfectly sentient aliens.
After that, the whole experiment pretty much runs itself. You can watch alliances forming; see groups hunting each other for the pot or bartering older members of the family who can’t work any more. It’s fascinating for a while, really it is, but that’s only half the story, isn’t it? Savages acting like savages doesn’t surprise anybody, not even their mothers.
No, just as happened in Montaigne’s famous essay, I needed a high human civilization to come along to get all judgy and sneery and interventiony.
These days, I eat like a vegan and in my laboratory universe, the future is vegetarian too. Centuries of environmental collapse have put people like me in the driver’s seat. An age from now, billions of Peadars will regard the chewing of little animals as an abomination. So just imagine the stern looks for those who shove intelligent aliens or fellow humans down their gullets, no matter how tasty or tender.
In the interests of science, I brought the two groups together, forcing civilized humans to live in amongst their primitive cousins. It was a bit like one of those reality TV shows where they send celebrities into the jungle to eat centipedes or Kangaroo penis, except that my victims had no way out of the difficult decisions. That’s the difference between science and art: a lot of real authors would have intervened and saved them, but that would have negated my findings.
And what were they? Those precious results?
The majority of test subjects chose carnivorism over death. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: cannibalism is rife in human history. I’m not just talking about missionary-munching tribes in the Amazon or about the bones of cavemen that have been found covered in little cuts where the meat was scraped away by their two-footed relatives. Cannibalism is the dirty secret of every famine and every war in human history; of disasters big and small; of lost expeditions.
My belief, is that we are all descendants of people who did such things in order to survive. These actions are rightly upsetting in civilised surroundings and hopefully, if we can escape Peak Oil, rogue asteroids, sneezing chickens and so on, most of us will never find ourselves in that position.
But we shouldn’t pour scorn on those who do. That’s my reading of Montaigne, anyway, and that’s why, when stealing this big idea of his, my aim was always to make my cannibal protagonist as sympathetic as possible without ever compromising on his survival- and tradition-driven behaviours.
Did I succeed? Well, to quote that dear old Frenchman one more time, “Que sçais-je?” — “What do I know?”