A Book Worth Swallowing Whole–The Joy of Cannibalism

Click on the image to go to the University of Michigan’s LSA Magazine’s article on cannibalism.

“In the first hours there was nothing, no fear or sadness, no sense of the passage of time, not even the glimmer of a thought or a memory, just a black and perfect silence.”

Recently, perusing my university’s alumni magazine (The University of Michigan’s LSA Magazine) I was amused to find, amid The Food Issue’s expected articles on famous chefs, farmer’s markets, food research, and the neuroscience of eating—all concerning U of M students, alumni, and professors—an article on a professor researching cannibalism (click on the image above to go to the original article). Two things drew me head first into the article, 1) the editor’s twisted sense of humor, which I readily applaud, and 2) the article’s iconic photograph (below).

 

On December 23, 1972, the last of 16 survivors from Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 were rescued in the Andes Mountains. Their ordeal and subsequent cannibalism were the basis for the 1993 movie Alive.

In  the article, Dr. Peggy McCracken discusses famous cannibalism cases including the Donner Party, Jeffrey Dahmer, and, if you were alive in 1972 you will remember, the famous Andes crash of the plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team. Sixteen of the original 55 or so passengers and crew survived two-and-a-half months in frigid, impossible conditions by consuming those who didn’t survive. The story was made into a book and movie (Alive!); the rescue was a world-wide astonishment. I was 18 at the time, and wanted to read the book, but never got around to it. When I saw the article and photo, I felt it was time. I quickly downloaded to my Kindle the only book listed on Amazon, and am I lucky I did. The book, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, by Nando Parrado and Vince Rause, was published only recently, in 2006, and is by a survivor (Parrado) and New York Times writer (Rause). It is an amazing book. Although Alive! documented what happened, Parrado relates, in incredibly compelling prose, how he survived, how he thought and felt during the ordeal, and how now, as a 60-year-old man, he feels about what happened almost 40 years ago.

I have never felt as present in a book as I did in this one. Parrado makes you feel the horror, the day-to-day terror, the hunger, thirst, and desperate COLD. The excruciatingly slow passage of time, coupled with continuing deaths from injuries sustained in the crash, and the realization rescue is not coming is enough to drive people insane, but due to the men’s caring for each other, it doesn’t happen. Finally, after two months, Parrado and a companion scrabble and claw their way through the snow-packed Andes and down a river-filled canyon to find a lone horseman heading cattle. He hears their story and takes off—leaving them to wonder where he’s gone—until rescue appears 12 hours later. The shepherd—an elderly man–had ridden ten hours straight to the nearest outpost.

Parrado tells the story of his last day of “real” food: one chocolate-covered peanut. The day he received it he slowly sucks off the chocolate. The next day he divides the peanut in half along the seam and eats half. The last day, he eats the second half. Can you spell e-m-c-i-a-t-i-o-n? I can’t.

The story of the crash and its aftermath would be story enough, but appended to book’s end is Parrado’s story of redemption. The real value of this book is Parrado’s realization that his story is important, that how he reclaims his life after the horror of watching people die rather miserable deaths—and then eating them—is actually valuable to other people. After all, what could be more despicable than eating human flesh? More traumatizing than a plane crash on the frozen tundra? More physically, spiritually, and mentally exhausting than surviving day-to-day at 12,000 feet crammed into a very small space with screaming, dying people; dead bodies; and the same smelly, starving, oxygen-deprived people for almost three months? How about backing out of your driveway and accidently running over and killing your own child? When a woman to whom this happened and who heard Parrado’s talk tells him how his sharing has saved her, he comes to know that everyone has “their own personal Andes,” and that his story has meaning. To quote Parrado, “The story chills them but also encourages them, because they see that even in the face of the cruelest kind of suffering, and against all odds, an ordinary person can endure.”

A few quotes from the book:

“That claustrophobic frustration gnawed at me until, like a man buried alive, I began to panic. Every moment that passed was filled with a visceral fear, as if the earth beneath my feet were a ticking bomb that might explode at any second; as if I stood blindfolded before a firing squad, waiting to feel the bullets slam into my chest. This terrifying sense of vulnerability—the certainty that doom was only moments away—never rested. It filled every moment of my time on the mountain. It became the backdrop for every thought and conversation. And it produced in me a manic urge to flee. I fought this fear the best I could, trying to calm myself and think clearly, but there were moments when animal instinct threatened to overcome reason, and it would take all my strength to keep from bolting off blindly into the cordillera.”

“All the things that had made Marcelo such a great leader—his confidence, his decisiveness, his unshakable faith in his own beliefs and decisions—now prevented him from adjusting to the blow and finding a new balance.”

There are rules and realities that will not change to suit your needs.”

“I did feel something larger than myself, something in the mountains and the glaciers and the glowing sky that, in rare moments, reassured me, and made me feel that the world was orderly and loving and good. If this was God, it was not God as a being or a spirit or some omnipotent, superhuman mind. It was not a God who would choose to save us or abandon us, or change in any way. It was simply a silence, a wholeness, an awe-inspiring simplicity. It seemed to reach me through my own feelings of love, and I have often thought that when we feel what we call love, we are really feeling our connection to this awesome presence. I feel this presence still when my mind quiets and I really pay attention. I don’t pretend to understand what it is or what it wants from me. I don’t want to understand these things. I have no interest in any God who can be understood, who speaks to us in one holy book or another, and who tinkers with our lives according to some divine plan, as if we were characters in a play. How can I make sense of a God who sets one religion above the rest, who answers one prayer and ignores another, who sends sixteen young men home and leaves twenty-nine others dead on a mountain?”

Fantastic book, insightful writer, compelling story. Read it and weep.