|Genre||Autobiography (292 pp.)|
|Keywords||Body Self-Image, Catastrophe, Death and Dying, Family Relationships, Father-Son Relationship, Human Worth, Individuality, Loneliness, Nature, Religion, Spirituality, Suffering, Survival, Trauma|
On Friday the 13th of October of 1972, a Fairchild F-227, a twin engine turbo prop carrying the Old Christians Rugby Club from Montevideo, Uruguay, to an exhibition match in Chile, crashed in the Andes with 45 people aboard, including the four crew members. The players were mostly young men in their early 20's accompanied by several adults, including the mother and sister of the author of Miracle in the Andes, Nando Parrado. They had the good fortune to have a relatively soft crash with 40 survivors after impact, which dwindled to 16 by the time of the dramatic rescue two months later. This book recounts the incredible tribulations of the survivors, the escape of two of them over the Andes with warm weather clothing to a small farm community in rural Chile, and the author's reflections on this experience.
The young men were quick to learn basic survival tricks at altitude including keeping each other warm, devising an apparatus to keep themselves hydrated, and trying to maintain optimistic spirits. Although they were sure of a rescue mission, as the days passed it became clear this was increasingly unlikely. They eventually came to the dilemma of all such cornered and secluded survivors, i.e., eat human flesh or die of starvation. Unlike the sailors in the story of the whaleship Essex, and more akin to the saga of the Donner Party, there were corpses available already refrigerated by nature with no need for drawing straws for sacrifice. Despite their staunch Catholicism - their team was, after all, a team sponsored by the Irish Christian Brothers of the Stella Maris School - all the survivors finally agreed it was necessary.
Although there were a few initial attempts to escape, they were futile until the author and one of the three medical students, Roberto Canessa, were successful in climbing over the peaks, finally encountering peasant farmers after a ten day trek to Los Maitenes, a region in Colchagua, Chile. Helicopters then returned to the crash site and successfully rescued the remaining members of this small band of young men.
Although this story has been told before in book form (Alive, by Piers Paul Read in 1974) and two movies in 1993, this is the first book in English by one of the survivors. The author begins dramatically with the crash and then backs up to restart the story with his family life, the influence of the school and rugby team. The narrative continues with the trip, the crash, their common and individual ordeals, the daring escape by two of them, immediate aftermath and ends with Nando's subsequent life, including his race car career and family, bringing the reader to the present. It closes with his coming to write this book 20 some years later and how he came to interpret the crash then and now.
Written with Vince Rause, a magazine writer who has also co-authored another book, Miracle in the Andes is an unusually moving story. Although the subject matter alone guarantees that a harrowing and ultimately redemptive tale is in the offing, it is far more than that, mainly because of the author's personal philosophy that resulted from his experience and how this philosophy interprets the many thematic issues in the book.
The profiles of several of his teammates, like Arturo Nogueira, who dies a month after the crash, are quite poignant. As he lay dying, Arturo tells Nando, "I want you to remember, even in this place, our lives have meaning. Our suffering is not for nothing. Even if we are trapped here forever, we can love our families, and God, and each other as long as we live. Even in this place, our lives are worth living." (p. 149) This lesson becomes one of the leitmotifs of the book. The other, to come later, as Nando crosses the Andes, is the tension between life and death and how Nando resolves it.
Other threads of importance in the book are: the meaning of the cannibalism, which the boys explained to themselves at the time as a form of communion--an interpretation later officially confirmed by Catholic authorities in Uruguay, and a rationale generously affirmed by many of the parents of those young men who had died; the value of sport, especially rugby, in inculcating into the young men the value of teamwork under adversity; the importance to him of family ties, most especially the love he felt for his father (his mother died on impact and his sister Susy died soon thereafter); the theme of nostos, i.e., the arduous journey home, in Nando's case over the Andes in essentially tropical clothing with no equipment, a homecoming akin to Odysseus's (but very much unlike Mark Schluter's in Echo Maker) signalled by the immediate and loving welcome by his faithful dog Jimmy; and, finally, the universality of one's apparently uniquely personal story of suffering.
Asked to be a speaker in Mexico in 1991, Nando abruptly abandons his prepared remarks for young business owners as the keynote speaker and spontaneously unloads his story for ninety minutes, after which the audience erupted into applause and, more importantly, demonstrated their acceptance and validation of his story as their own, many of the listeners coming up to him to relate similar tragic burdens in their own lives. After one particular woman told him her story of backing her car over and killing her two year old girl and thanking him for sharing his story, a story that was now allowing her to find the strength to continue to live, Nando embraces her and writes, "I realized that my story is her story. ...But in its essence - the essence of human emotion - it is the most familiar story in the world. We all, at times, face hopelessness and despair. ... 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,” (p. 283) the core of the equally moving Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Hallie.
The most salient message in the book, however, is the author's epiphany crossing the Andes with Roberto Canessa, now a pediatric cardiologist in Uruguay. As he stands atop an Andean peak on the trek to Chile, transfixed by the beauty, the bleakness and the vastness before him, Nando, like Paul on the road to Damascus, has one of those life-changing moments that is so difficult to enunciate to others:
"I had always thought that life was the actual thing, the natural thing, and that death was simply the end of livng. Now, in this lifeless place, I saw with a terrible clarity that death was the constant, death was the base, and life was only a short, fragile dream. I was dead already. I had been born dead, and what I thought was my life was just a game death let me play as it waited to take me. ... The mountains, for all their power, were not stronger than my attachment to my father. They could not crush my ability to love. I felt a moment of calmness and a clarity, and in that clarity of mind I discovered a simple, astounding secret: Death has an opposite, but the opposite is not mere living. It is not courage or faith or human will. The opposite of death is love." (pp. 200-201)
|Place Published||New York|
|Miscellaneous||Written with Vince Rause.|
|Annotated by||Ratzan, Richard M.|
|Date of Entry||05/06/07|