on Kafka’s Leopards, a novella by Moacyr Scliar (Texas Tech University Press)

The Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar (1937-2011) produced over sixty titles in a variety of genres that also included children’s books, short stories, philosophical studies, and even cookbooks. The Centaur in the Garden (1980) is his best-known novel. His parents emigrated from Bessarabia in 1919 to the southernmost state of Brazil, and his allegorical, fabulist and folkloric prose fiction often centers on characters journeying through a world of threat and absurdity. Ilan Stavans wrote that Scliar liked to say that he was “perennially trapped in the outskirts of things.” After earning a medical degree in 1962, he made his living as a public health official. That year, his first book was published, Stories of a Doctor in Training.

Scliar_X.jpgBut at his death, the obituaries fixed on Yann Martel’s controversial literary theft of Scliar’s Max and the Cats (1981), a tale about a Jewish boy escaped from Nazi Germany who, having survived the shipwreck of a boat transporting wild animals to a Brazilian zoo, must share a lifeboat with a jaguar. Thus, Life of Pi (2002), winner of the Man Booker Prize. (Martel claimed he had not read the novel, only reviews of it.)

It’s time to shift the attention back to Scliar and his accomplishments. As part of its estimable “Americas” series, Texas Tech has published his novella Kafka’s Leopards, originally issued in 2000 and now translated spiritedly by Thomas O. Beebee.

The story follows the long travels of Benjamin Kantarovitch, nicknamed Mousy, whose wish to fulfill a directive supposedly from Leon Trotsky leads him to Prague. It is 1916. He begins in a shtetl near Odessa where a sick friend named Yossi asks him to undertake an urgent mission, a meeting with a secret agent. Yossi hands him an envelope:

“ ‘Inside the envelope,’ continued Yossi, ‘is the name of the man you are to look for, and his telephone number. I don’t know who he is, never heard of him … I know he’s a Jew like us. Seems he is a writer.”

ScliarCover.jpegFranz Kafka produced a trove of aphoristic parables, including this: “Leopards break into the temple and drink up the offering in the chalices. This happens again and again. Finally, one can predict their action in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.” In Prague, Mousy’s obtuseness and wanderings mistakenly lead him to Kafka who mistakes him for a staff member of a literary magazine. The leopard parable is the “secret message” Mousy carries off with him. His mission, however, ends in failure and he returns to the shtetl.

The narrative leaps ahead to 1964. Mousy and his family emigrate to Brazil. A right-wing coup is taking place. Kafka’s message now assumes a second life and generates a series of misinterpretations as various parties try to decode it. Scliar portrays a world of coincidences, luckless striving and lucky resolution, bureaucratic ignorance, ideological myopia, and general benightedness. It’s a world where the leavening of comedy is essential to survival.

Scliar’s terse prose is a slick track for the momentary considerations of both narrator and characters. After Mousy collects Kafka’s puzzling message, the narrator breezes through Mousy’s bemused reasonings:

“Maybe all this had nothing to do with real leopards. ‘Leopards in the Temple’ could very well serve as a codename – a bit off the wall, but wasn’t off-the-wallness the essence of being revolutionary? – for a Trotskyite cell in Prague, the one that was to help carry out the action. After all, Kafka said that they were invading a temple, something that revolutionaries would certainly do: and they would join the inexorable march of history for doing so. But then the next passage ruins the logic of the narration a bit – or rather, ruined it a lot – because the leopards were invading the temple not to destroy it, not to chase out the merchants of faith, priests, pastors, or rabbis. No, the leopards were going to drink from the chalices. Why would they do this? It wasn’t just an excuse for drinking alcohol, since Kafka was not explicit regarding what was in the chalices. What was the meaning of the act, then? Could the leopards be wild beasts trained to defend the clergy and the dominant class? If that were the case, then wouldn’t their codename stand for right-wing militias?”

ScliarColor.jpegIn a recent interview, Scliar was asked if contemporary world events would affect literature as deeply as past events had. He answered, “I think writers, as always, have to deal with the main questions of the human condition -- the relationship between human beings, social justice, human feelings, and so forth. But I have no doubt that contemporary world events — fundamentalism, poverty, oppression —are big issues for writers.” His work, so rooted in 20th century diaspora and oppression, speaks to the intolerances of our moment -- but also behaves playfully with language and the interpretation of texts in a way that honors Yiddish story-telling, Talmudic wrangling, and Borges-esque enigmas.

[Published August 1, 2011. 152 pages, $26.95 hardcover]