Big Snake Little Snake: An Inquiry into Risk

Sravanthi Challapalli | Updated on: Jun 30, 2022

Booker Prize-winning author DBC Pierre examines what constitutes long odds, short odds, adjacent odds, kismet, and the power of thought in influencing outcomes in this fascinating book

Big Snake Little Snake is a rumination on risk. In chapter after chapter, author DBC Pierre attempts to deconstruct the odds that go into bringing about – or not producing – events big and small, mundane and extraordinary, and in doing so, keeps returning to the conclusion that maths and science do not have the answer to why something happens or does not.

The books came about as the result of Pierre’s ponderings over a coincidence in his stint in Trinidad – he meets a snake at close quarters, the creature being significant in relation to the local lottery and his winning some money on it soon after. “Not to suggest it was anything but a random lucky break, but I want to suggest we look at why I wouldn’t suggest that, and to find out if I’m wrong … Maths and psychology platitude-laws like  probability and  confirmation bias are no longer a good enough plaster over this whole writhing world of odds.”

And so begins the inquiry into what constitutes long odds, short odds, adjacent odds, kismet, the power of thought in influencing outcomes, the sad discarding of the role of imagination, and vivid maths. This last is his term for a place teeming with rather untamed life, magic and potential. Of this, he says, “Life in general in places like this runs at such a high pitch of maths that perhaps the competition between creatures, probabilities, and their sums is what we now call vivid maths.”

No incident escapes Pierre’s autopsy of the elements that generated the odds of it happening. Cascades, as he calls them. How did the snake come by him? Yes, there were a variety of snakes on the island, but how did it choose his doorstep? And how did it appear on a day when he would go on to win a lottery symbolically indexed to it? Why was the clerk in the post office bent on a vendetta? Were they chosen to work for their thick skin and ability to confront arguments? Were they a middle child? And that rare bird pepper, a coveted Trinidadian wonder– what are the strands that string up for it to come up at one spot and not another? A bird has to find a fruit from a rare plant, eat it, and then egest the seed, after which sprouts the plant. On the way, there are the considerations of the size and type of bird, its digestion time, flight path, and size of the plot of land that receives the seed.

Pierre suggests that we do not grasp the entire extent of the forces that go into generating an event so much that we ignore the multitude of forces that go into making an event a probability. Predicting probability is a limited act – many probabilities do not come true. “… science has the tools to call some odds for an outcome; but it only assesses the filament in isolation. And I ask how is that filament not connected to the hand that grasped it; to the sum, to the spirit and nature and force of the cascade that grew it?”

He goes on to add that all the calculations take into account only what we know, while there is so much that we do not, and, therefore, any predictions based on statistics are limited. He says it is high time science stopped negating real things beyond its current understanding.

In later chapters, he discusses knowing by and acting on instinct and intuition. Much of what the author says in the book rings true and relatable – but one can probably understand it better if they have an appreciation of gambling, Einstein, Niels Bohr and quantum mechanics. My eyes glazed over when these mentions came up and I struggled to hold on to what I had managed to comprehend so far.

About the Book
Big Snake Little Snake: An Inquiry Into Risk
Cheerio (Hachette)
Rs 799; 176 pages (hardcover)

However, the book is an enjoyable read. Pierre, who has won major prizes including the Booker for  Vernon God Little (2003), has just the right words, whether it’s the sublime or the absurd. Talking of a lean patch in his life, he says: “When you don’t have the small things that sparkle with civilisation, they grow more glaring and valuable. Nothing says things are fine like a crisp newspaper or magazine, along with the peace to cradle them in your hands and drink them in.” Now who could argue with that?

The book ends with a mystery being solved, quite by chance, and even that becomes grist for the mill. One thing I did not understand, though. Did no one whom the author asked earlier know the truth about the  soucouyant, the shapeshifting character?

Check out the book at Amazon

(Sravanthi Challapalli is an independent writer and editor based in Chennai)

Published on June 30, 2022
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