The news that a group of Uruguayan rugby players had survived for 70 days after an air crash in the Andes appeared in the newspapers towards the end of December, 1972. It received greater coverage in South America and the US than it did in Britain, but I remember reading the story in the London Times while spending Christmas with my family in Yorkshire.
I was at the time the author of four novels which had achieved critical but not commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. My US publisher, J.B. Lippincott, specialized in medical text books, but had a small general list whose editor-in-chief was Edward Burlingame. He had been disappointed by the poor sales of my novels and, shortly after Christmas, telephoned me from New York to ask me if I had read about the Andes survivors, whether I agreed with him that it would make a great subject for a book, and that I should write it. I replied that the subject was too gruesome and, since it would not be a book I would ever read, I was hardly a suitable author. He persisted, offering me a first class ticket to Montevideo to meet the survivors. If I still did not want to write the book, I could fly home.
Burlingame was not the only publisher to have sniffed a best-seller. In Montevideo the survivors, had decided that a single account of their ordeal should be written, and had appointed a committee to assess the competing bids from a number of US publishers—among them Harper & Row and Reader’s Digest—all richer and more powerful than J.B. Lippincott, and with more celebrated and successful writers in tow.
On the face of it, a 31-year-old English novelist, who spoke no Spanish and had written no non-fiction, was the least suitable of the writers put forward: others, such as Gay Talese, had established reputations in the field. However, after 10 days of frantic negotiations, Lippincott’s bid was chosen, and an agreement was signed with the survivors.
Why had Lippincott succeeded when the other publishers had failed? First because Burlingame, a man of great charm and tact, had assured them that he would not exploit the sensational aspects of the story. And second, because the members of their committee had liked the fact that his author was an Englishman rather than an American and, like them, a Roman Catholic. They thought that my Catholicism would ensure a high-minded, even spiritual, interpretation of their story.
And why did I agree to write the book rather than, as I had originally intended, fly back to my wife and children in England? First, because having been chosen, it was difficult to refuse; but second, and more importantly, because I had come to realise after talking to the survivors that the fact they had eaten human flesh to survive was not the main point of their story. What it demonstrated was that human beings in conditions of extreme privation do not necessarily descend into savagery, but are capable of exceptional heroism and self-sacrifice. I felt privileged to be chosen to convey this truth to the world.
At the beginning of February, 1973, Burlingame returned to New York and I started my research, interviewing the Survivors, their families, and also the families of those who had not returned. The process was difficult and at times painful: the Survivors had been unwilling to talk to either priests, parents or psycho-therapists because to confess to the first would imply that they had sinned, to the second that they were still children and to the third that they were loco—insane! I now became their confident, counsellor and confessor and, as a result, the bond forged with my subjects became so close that they sometimes called me the “seventeenth survivor”.
When, six months later, in October of 1973, I returned to Montevideo with Burlingame to show the survivors the typescript, they were appalled. They were shocked that I had included in my narrative what they called ‘the details’—the gruesome minutiae of their cuisine. They would be seen as savages. They would be stoned in the street. Where had I written that they were admirable and courageous young men? Why had I not described their survival as a miracle? And then, individually, each would take me aside to say that, while I had been accurate in depicting the characters of the other 15, I had wholly failed to understand him.
Fortunately, Burlingame, had prudently insisted upon a clause in the contract stating that I should not be expected to “violate my conscience” by agreeing to any form of censorship over the finished book. They could ask us to remove errors of fact, but there were no errors of fact: all that was in the book came from my recorded interviews with the Survivors.
More importantly, as I mentioned above, I had established a strong bond of trust in the course of those interviews. The Survivors were now my friends, and I was able to convince them that, when it came to a moral judgement on their actions, it was more effective not to tell readers what to think about what they had done, but to let them decide for themselves.
After 10 days of often hysterical negotiations in the Victoria Plaza Hotel in Montevideo, my book emerged intact. It was published as Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors in New York the following spring, and throughout the world soon after. In every market, it was an outstanding success, selling five million copies in 15 different nations. The Survivors, far from being stoned in the streets of Montevideo as they had feared, were regarded as heroes because, as one reviewer put it, theirs is the story “of a group of human beings who rose, in extremis, to heights beyond their own, or anyone else’s expectations, and left me, at least, feeling a good deal better than usual about belonging to the human race.”