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for the week of August 08, 2011

He awoke to someone shaking him forcefully. It was the conductor.

“Get up, buddy, we’ve arrived.”

“Arrived?” Groggy as he was, Mousy could not comprehend the man.

“We’re in Prague. Prague! Wasn’t Prague your destination? Go on, get off the train.”

Mousy confusedly grabbed his suitcase off the baggage rack and hurried off the train. He left the station and was in Prague. He stood still and gazed wide-eyed at the city bright with lights—it was ten at night and lights were on everywhere—at the crowds, the automobiles, the streetcars, the huge buildings. For someone who knew only his village, it was a dazzling and at the same time frightening sight. Mousy was scared but also euphoric. He had made it. In spite of everything, of all the problems, he had arrived at his destination. He no longer had any doubts that no matter what his mission was, he would complete it. He would return to Chernovitsky in short order. He was already imagining himself saying to Yossi, “Comrade Yossi, I was not unworthy of the trust you placed in me.” He was certain that one day Yossi would take him to Trotsky and would introduce him with pride: “Comrade, this is Benjamin, a great fellow-traveler, revolutionary of the first order, a man who completes any mission, no matter how difficult.”

The Terminus Hotel wasn’t far from the station: Mousy walked there in the falling snow. It didn’t take him long to find the place. It was a small, run-down hotel, its façade ornamented with sinister gargoyles. Its appearance was depressing, but Mousy was not a tourist seeking comfort: he was a man on a mission. He went in. At the front desk a bald, fat man with a black patch over his left eye looked him over suspiciously.

“What do you want?” he asked in German. His insolent tone intimidated Mousy.

“I just arrived. . . . I have a reservation. . . .”

“A reservation.” The man grudgingly opened a book with a black cover. “And under what name, if I’m allowed to know?”

Mousy took a moment to answer. “Yossi. Yossi Perelman.”

The man perused the book. “Yossi Perelman . . . that’s right, you do have a reservation. For one week. Pay in advance.”

Mousy took the money from his pocket, counted out the amount, and handed the bills to the man, who counted them again—twice. He then gave him a ragged towel and a key: “Third floor. Use those stairs over there.”

Mousy thanked him and was about to go up, but the man called him back for a warning: “I don’t want any trouble here, understand? Whatever happens, I don’t know anything about it.”

This puzzled Mousy. Could the man be aware of something concerning his mission? And if he was, did he also have a role to play in it? Evidently, but he couldn’t ask anything about it now. Mousy grabbed his suitcase and went up to his room.

A small room, not at all clean—a brown mouse ran for his hole as soon as the guest entered—and very cold. It contained only a bed, a small closet covered with dust, a sink, and a broken mirror. But it would do. Despite his tiredness, Mousy decided to start right away by contacting the writer.

And then he realized—his satchel was missing.

The satchel with the copy of the Manifesto and the envelope— it wasn’t there. With trembling hands he opened the suitcase: could he have stuffed the satchel inside? No, nothing but clothes in the suitcase. He fell onto the bed, confused and frightened. He had lost the satchel. His first reaction was to be angry—with himself. “You lost the satchel, damn you,” he moaned, “you lost the satchel, you idiot, dope, shit-bourgeois!” He took a deep breath. “I need to get a grip,” he thought, “the thing is to remain calm and rational.” He needed to retrace his steps, to try to picture—with the eyes of his imagination—the place where he had left the bag. The first place that occurred to him: the front desk. He hurtled down the stairs. The man was there, reading the newspaper.

“My satchel!” he yelled. “Where’s my satchel?”

At first the man failed to understand. Partly on account of the Yiddish accent, of course, but also because of the young man’s agitation. Finally he figured out what Mousy was talking about.

“Satchel? No. You didn’t leave any satchel here. You probably left it on the train.”

On the train. Of course. On the train. Awakened abruptly, he had left hurriedly, confusedly—and in the process he had forgotten his satchel.

He ran to the train station in a snow that was now falling more heavily, repeating under his breath, “let the train still be there, my God, please, let the train still be there.”

He entered the station, went straight to the platform he had stepped out onto.

There was no train there. In fact, there wasn’t a soul on the platform except for a station employee, sweeping up. Mousy went up to him and asked about the train he had arrived with.

“It went on,” answered the man without looking at him. “About half an hour ago.”

“And my satchel?” asked Mousy in a trembling, almost sobbing voice.

The man had no idea what he was talking about. Mousy related what had happened. The employee scratched his head. He said there was a lost and found department, and that Mousy could ask there, but the chances of recovering his satchel were close to zero. Mousy ran to the window: no, the cleaning crew had not found any bag. The woman took down the name of his hotel, but she repeated what the station employee had said: for all intents and purposes, the satchel was gone forever.

“Things were always a mess before. Now, with the war, it’s a lot worse.”

Crestfallen, Benjamin returned to the hotel.

“Find your satchel?” the man at the front desk asked, in a mocking tone.

“No,” murmured Benjamin, “I didn’t find it.” He climbed the stairs, locked himself in his room, lay down fully dressed—and then broke out in convulsive sobs. What a disaster he was, what a disaster! With the mission hardly started, he had already goofed monumentally. And Yossi had put so much trust in him. Poor, poor Yossi.
He cried and cried until, exhausted, he fell asleep.

He awoke the next morning, drowsy, with a headache—and hungry. He decided to leave the hotel to get something to eat—and to walk around a little. He needed to consider what he should do. Perhaps something would occur to him while he was walking. He went down to the lobby. There was the desk clerk at his station.

“How’s it going? Find your bag?” Mousy said no. The man looked at him with obvious suspicion.

“I want to remind you again: you’ve paid for a week’s stay, and only a week. Or rather, six days now. After that, it’s goodbye.”

Mousy didn’t answer. He left and entered a small, smoke-filled café opposite the hotel. While he was chewing drowsily on a piece of bread, he tried to collect his thoughts and come up with a plan.

Point number one: he couldn’t afford to lose any more time looking for the lost satchel, an operation that would undoubtedly take several days and would probably achieve nothing.

Point number two: he had to discover who was supposed to inform him of his mission. He didn’t know who he was, but he did know that he was looking for a person who was a writer, a Jew, and a leftist. That made the task a bit easier. Even in a city like Prague, the number of people who fit this category couldn’t be great. All he needed was a starting point: someone who could at least give him some clues as to how to locate leftist Jewish writers.

Who would that be? Up to now he had only met a single person in Prague, the desk clerk at the Terminus Hotel. Maybe the man knew something; maybe the hotel was the usual hangout for Trotskyites. But with that face of a reactionary stoolpigeon, the man didn’t seem to be a Trotskyite. Perhaps he was disguising himself—if so, he was doing a great job of it: perhaps he was testing the little Jew who had just arrived; Trotsky himself might have asked him to do so. Nevertheless, with all these uncertainties Mousy decided that this was not the man to inquire of anything concerning the mission. Among other things, asking would be an admission of Mousy’s own failure, and it was too early for that. He would make use of the desk clerk only if all else failed, after exhausting every other means. Before that, he could try other sources of information.

The Writers’ Association, perhaps? No. Not them. He couldn’t go there as an unknown saying, “Listen, friends, I’m looking for some leftist Jewish writers.” That would only generate distrust. No, he needed to find another way.

He finished his breakfast, paid and left. He went walking haphazardly through the narrow streets of the Old City. When he came to himself, he was in a place that seemed familiar to him; in fact he could see a few signs in Hebrew. It was Maisel Street in the former ghetto of Prague. Before him stood the legendary Altneuschule, the old synagogue, a massive and gloomy building. The main door was open. Benjamin went in. No one was there. He stood there looking at the austere interior, the old pews, the sacristy where the Torah was kept.

“May I help you?” He turned. A very old man, wearing a black coat with a hood, was looking at him with a comical wink. “I am the shammes,” he identified himself, “the caretaker of this synagogue. How can I help you?”

“I was just having a look around,” answered Mousy in Yiddish, which enchanted the man.

“At your service,” he answered, also in Yiddish. “I take care of the synagogue and also show it to visitors. They come here from every part of the world. But that,” he added with pride, “is no problem for me. I speak eight languages fluently: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian. . . .” He winked. “But the language I really like to speak is Yiddish. It was my mother’s language, the one she sang me to sleep in. . . . You don’t forget things like that. Time passes, but you don’t forget.” He stood silent for a moment, still, staring into space. Then he turned to his visitor again: “And you? Where are you from? Russia? Poland?”

Mousy hesitated. Could he confide in the old man? He decided to risk telling the truth, or at least part of it. He said he had come from Chernovitsky and that he was working in Prague. Yes, Chernovitsky, the old man knew the village, even had friends who lived in the area. And he went on: “Come on, let me tell you a bit of the history of this synagogue.”

He grabbed Mousy by the arm and brought him into the atrium: “Here is where the Golem is buried,” he said. He explained that the Golem was a giant created out of mud by the Cabbalist rabbi Luria in order to defend the Prague Jews against the antiSemites. But having rebelled against his master, the Golem was destroyed and now was buried there.

He told some other stories and then fell silent—apparently expecting a tip.

Benjamin didn’t have much money. But perhaps the man could help him in some way, and so he took his money out of his pocket and gave him some coins. The shammes counted them and, rather dissatisfied—apparently he was used to receiving more substantial sums—pocketed them, asking if he could do anything further for his visitor. It was purely a formality on his part, but Mousy had to take advantage of every opportunity. Yes, he needed help: he was looking for Jewish writers (he didn’t dare add the adjective “leftist”). Couldn’t the guide tell him something in that regard?

“Jewish writers?” asked the little man, now curious. “Why would you want to meet Jewish writers?”

“I’m a writer, too,” Mousy lied, “and I want to exchange ideas with them.”

“Hmmm . . .” the man thought awhile. “Jewish writers here in Prague . . . I don’t know many. You know, that’s not the type that likes to attend synagogue. But there are two fellows who like to show up here once in a while—looking for inspiration, I think. They’re friends, those two. One is Max Brod, a very nice guy. The other one is Franz Kafka. Sort of an oddball . . .”

An oddball. That seemed promising to Mousy.

“An oddball? Why do you call him an oddball?”

“For various reasons,” responded the shammes, who apparently didn’t mind a little gossip. “He’s a solitary young man, talks very little. And he has family problems. Doesn’t get along with his father, who’s a well-to-do businessman but kind of crude. All that has made Kafka a rebel.”

A rebel. Yes, this was interesting. Behind the rebel, the revolutionary might be lurking. Must be lurking. Only the person who doesn’t conform, who doesn’t accept things as they are, who never feels entirely comfortable is capable of changing society. And the name . . . Kafka seemed to him like a good name for a revolutionary: the echoing of the “k” sound suggested determination, tenacity. Like the “t” in Trotsky, whose name, he recalled, also had a “k” in it. Only an impression, of course, but what else did he have to go on except impressions?

“Where can I find this Franz Kafka?”

“I don’t know where he lives, exactly. But I heard that he has a kind of an office in the Old City. In a very old, little house, in the Alchemists’ Lane behind Hradschin Castle.”

Alchemists’ Lane, behind a castle? Strange place for a Communist writer, thought Mousy. From what he remembered, alchemists were folks who tried changing metals into gold; speculators, that is, and of the worst kind, those that mix magic with their speculation, capitalism with superstition. And why live near a castle, the present or past sanctum of the nobility and thus a symbol of inequality?

Perhaps this was deliberate, a choice meant to send a message. Perhaps the name of the street and the vision of the castle gave Kafka a stimulus for his indignation, without which revolution is impossible.

“You look like a rebel too,” said the old man, with a penetrating look.

“Me?” Mousy tried to disguise his nervousness. “Me, the most laid-back fellow in the world, I look like a rebel? Nonsense. What gave you that idea?”

The old man smiled. “Life, my friend, life has taught me to know people. And you don’t know how to lie.” He approached, lowering his voice. “You’re in some kind of trouble. I don’t know what, but I’m going to give you some advice: go back to your village, forget what you came here to do. Do you know the story of the rabbi who came to Prague to find a treasure?”

Mousy didn’t know the story, so the old man told it to him. A rabbi from a Polish village had dreamed of a treasure buried close to a bridge in Prague. The dream had been so striking that he took it for a premonition. So he bade his family goodbye and set off for Prague. He arrived at the city, recognized the bridge he had seen in his dream, and started to dig. A watchman came to see what he was doing. So without saying who he was, the rabbi told him his dream. The watchman laughed: “Dreams! Who believes in dreams? Last night I dreamed of a treasure buried underneath the hearth of a Polish rabbi. What a bunch of nonsense.” The rabbi returned home, dug underneath the hearth, and sure enough, the treasure was there.

After a pause, the man drew the conclusion: “You came here exactly for this, for me to tell you that you need to return home and find the answer to your problems there. Well, that’s what I’ve just done. Go home, young man, do what your parents told you. Peace of mind is a treasure, a priceless treasure.”
Another pause. “Will you do that?”

“No,” Mousy responded drily.

The old man sighed. “I knew you weren’t going to take my advice. You’ve got something in common with Kafka, there. When I told him the story of the Golem, I warned him: we shouldn’t create things we can’t control. And fiction is just that, something that can’t be controlled. You start to write, to imagine, and who knows where it’s going to end? And then, more books for what? Everything important has been written in the Torah. The Torah—”

“And Kafka?” interrupted Mousy, “what did he say?”

“Nothing. Didn’t say anything. Didn’t pay any attention to me. He must think I’m just a senile old man who tells stories for tips. But this senile old man knows a lot more than you young fellows imagine.” He stood silent a moment, an unmistakably resentful silence. Then, with a gesture of disgust, he turned to Mousy: “Speaking of treasure and tips, you could contribute a bit more. I’ve spent more time with you than with any other visitor.”

Mousy wasn’t expecting this. But he couldn’t say no. He took a coin from his pocket and gave it to the old man, who gave it an offended look: “Is that all? After all the information I gave you, and all the advice?”

Mousy explained that he was poor, that the trip had been difficult and that he had to ration out his money.

“Same old story,” said the man sourly, “money is scarce, the crisis, the war . . . and I’m the one who ends up on the short end. But I deserve it. I deserve it because I’m stupid. I never wanted to study, I preferred being a shammes in this synagogue. And you know why? Because I always liked this place, I always liked telling stories about the Golem. And that doesn’t pay much. People who come here listen and listen, and then when the time comes to pay up all I get is excuses. Ever heard of a man named Freud?”

Mousy didn’t know who Freud was.

“He listens to stories, tells stories. Like me. But he charges, and a lot. True, he’s a doctor, and I never studied. But if I knew how to market myself, I’d be rich. Don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Mousy suddenly felt irritated. “And I also don’t find money so important.” And once started, off he went. He made a speech worthy of a political rally: he didn’t understand how people could have an ambition like that in a world of so many inequalities, a world in which the days of the wealthy were numbered. Before he realized, it had grown late.

The old man looked at him with raised eyebrows: “I had a feeling,” he said. “You must be one of those crazy revolutionaries running around here. Like that Gavrilo Princep who killed the Archduke and started this horrible war. There’s just one thing I don’t understand: what are you looking for in a synagogue? This isn’t a loony-bin. You’d better leave.”

Recovering his wits, Mousy recognized how stupidly he had acted. Why fight with a harmless old man who might be able to help him somehow, even if only superficially? With a forced smile he begged his pardon: he’d had a long voyage, he was still tired and that made him upset. He asked for forgiveness.

“I can forgive and forget, it doesn’t cost me anything,” said the shammes. “But if you want my advice, keep a lid on it. Don’t go around blabbering. Avoid quarrels.”

Mousy said goodbye and left. In the street he asked an old Jewess for the location of Alchemists’ Lane. Delighted to hear someone speaking Yiddish (“these Prague Jews have forgotten our language”), she accompanied him there.

The street was a strange one, to say the least. A narrow path along the former wall of the Old City, which served as the back wall for a row of houses topped by chimneys. “Houses” was a bit of an exaggeration for those tiny constructions. They were real miniatures. The doorways were less than five and a half feet high, and the whole living space couldn’t be more than two hundred square feet. How could someone live here, he kept asking himself. His family house in the village was small, but this was beyond the pale. This Kafka must really be an oddball.

Which of the houses would he be living in? Not knowing, he decided to experiment by knocking at the door of one. A corpulent man with thick glasses opened the door, asking gruffly what he wanted. “Are you Franz Kafka?” asked Mousy. The man laughed arrogantly.

“Me, Franz Kafka? Perish the thought. I am a great writer, Kafka is just a confused one, a fellow who lost himself. No, I’m not Franz Kafka. His house is next door—number 22.” After a pause he added: “But you won’t find him in. Right now he’s at work. You know he has a job? A bureaucratic one. And do you know why? Because he can’t make a living from literature. Of course not: no one understands what he writes. One of his stories—I think it’s called ‘Metamorphosis‘—is about a man who turns into a bug. Have you ever heard of anything more bizarre? If it was a children’s story, that would be understandable, but no, he writes for adults— gloomy, confusing stuff. I know, you didn’t ask, but as a writer I feel obligated to warn people: careful with this Kafka. He’s not what you think he is.”

Mousy listened with shock and dismay. This was not the image of Kafka he had been expecting. A revolutionary, he was thinking, can and even should be a writer—but his writing should be engaged, capable of mobilizing the masses for revolution. Now, a man changing into a bug, what was that? Could Franz Kafka really be the man he was looking for? Despite his doubts, he decided that he would at least make an attempt at contacting him. But it couldn’t wait until nightfall.

“Do you know where he works?”

The man looked at him with a wounded expression. “I see that my advice has done no good whatsoever. Only Franz Kafka will do for you. I was going to invite you in, tell you about my writings, give you one of my books as a gift, a book that I wrote and had published at the cost of my whole life savings. But no, you want Kafka, Kafka, Kafka.” He got a grip on himself, attempted a smile. “O.K. I’ll give you the address—but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Franz Kafka worked at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. Mousy hurried over there. The Institute was housed in a huge building with an ornately decorated, neoclassical façade. Mousy was again puzzled by this location. Yes, one expected a revolutionary to have contact with workers—but not through an institution like this one, which clearly represented only an alienating concession to the workers on the part of the bourgeoisie. But perhaps Kafka worked here as a mole. Perhaps his role was exactly that of contacting injured workers in order to identify their revolutionary potential and to recruit them for the Party. A one-armed man might be useless for factory work, but nothing would prevent him from using his one remaining hand (even if it happened to be the left one) to toss rocks—or even grenades.

All this was speculation, of course. But soon it would be at an end. In a few minutes he would find out if Kafka was the bearer of the text he was looking for, or not. If he was, everything else—the place where he lived and worked, the literature he produced—all that would become unimportant.

He entered the building and went up to the reception. “I’m looking for Franz Kafka,” he said to the woman stationed there.

She eyed him arrogantly over her glasses. “You mean, ‘Dr. Franz Kafka.’”

“Huh?” Mousy did not understand.

“Doctor,” emphasized the woman, “Doctor. He’s an attorney, see? And attorneys are addressed as ‘doctor.’” She shook her head. “You people never learn, never. Dr. Kafka’s office is on the fifth floor. Do you have an appointment?”

No, Mousy obviously did not have an appointment. “Well then,” said the secretary triumphantly, “I don’t think he can see you. Without an appointment it’s just not possible.”

That was the last straw. Mousy started crying. He tried to contain his sobs but failed: the tears streamed down his face. The woman looked at him without surprise—apparently she was used to scenes like this. But something about this case made her have compassion: “Listen, I can’t let you go up. But I’ll give you his telephone number. If it really is something quick like you say it is, maybe it can be taken care of with a phone call.” She took a slip of paper, rapidly wrote down a number on it, and handed it to Mousy. “Here you go. But don’t tell anyone. We’re not allowed to give out such information. I only did it because—”

Because? Because she had seen the idealist in him, the champion of a better world? There was no way of explaining the mystery. Mousy thanked her effusively and left.

He thought of returning to the hotel and telephoning, but he changed his mind. He could only phone from the front desk, under the watchful eyes of the sinister bald man, and a scenario like that seemed unwise. Better to find a telephone near his present location. Turning the corner, he saw a pharmacy and asked to use the telephone—which raised another problem.

Mousy did not know how to ring someone up. He had never used a telephone in his life—there wasn’t a single one in his village. He imagined it would not be too difficult, but he had no idea how to begin. So he decided to ask the pharmacist for instructions—a formal man with glasses and a goatee. He was surprised, but did not mind showing Mousy how it worked. As a precaution to avoid getting mixed up at the moment when he was to deliver the text, he wrote down the phrase he had to say, the password, on a piece of paper. Armed with this, he asked for the connection. And it went through:

“Franz Kafka here,” answered a colorless voice at the other end.

So great was Mousy’s emotion that he let the paper fall to the floor. He picked it up, but his hand trembled so much that he could not read it. Finally he managed to whisper: “They sent me to receive the text.”

“Sorry?” Apparently Kafka had not heard correctly.

“They sent me to receive the text,” Mousy repeated, his heart beating fast.

“The text. I see.” A pause. “What was your name again?”


“Yossi. And where do you live, Yossi?”

“In the Terminus Hotel. Do you know where it is?”

“Yes, I know where it is. I’ll have it delivered tomorrow.”

Mousy hung up, radiant with the laconic but decisive conversation he had just finished. All doubt was gone: Kafka was the man. He congratulated himself on his intelligence. His only mistake had been losing the satchel with the envelope, but he had managed to compensate for this. Now he was confident that he would complete the mission, whatever it might be. He returned to the hotel— and there was the man, staring at him with his lone, ironic eye. “So, here’s our guest, returning from his little walk. Did you like what you saw of Prague?”

The question seemed innocent enough—but could it perhaps be a trap? The man was an enigma, and until he had proof to the contrary, a dangerous one. Mousy decided not to make things easy for him. He answered with polite generalities and then went up to his room. On the way back to the hotel he had purchased bread and salami. His dad would die of shame if he knew his son was gorging himself on salami, which was prohibited for religious Jews, but that only increased the pleasure he felt in eating it. Satisfied, he lay down. It was five o’clock, but night had already fallen on the city: a black, snowy night. Although he was extremely tired, Mousy couldn’t get to sleep. Anticipation of the next day and of the text he would receive kept him awake. If only he could read something—but he had lost the Manifesto that had been his only reading material recently: “A spectre is haunting Europe,” he recited under his breath, “the spectre of Communism.” Yes, he had memorized the beginning, and the rest of it as well, but he was missing the book itself, which he always read at bedtime. It occurred to him that he should read something by Franz Kafka, just as an act of solidarity. But a man changing into a bug . . . no, he wasn’t too sure he would get a kick out of that one. And while ruminating on these thoughts, he fell asleep.

He awoke with a start: eight o’clock already. How had he managed to sleep for so long? He dressed swiftly and went down to the lobby. There was the man, reading his newspaper. Mousy hesitantly asked if anything had arrived for him.

“No,” the man responded drily, without taking his eyes off the paper. So there was nothing to be done other than wait. Mousy decided to go out to get something to eat; today might bring difficulties; better not start it off on an empty stomach. So he went out and found a cheap café and ordered a full breakfast: a lot of coffee with milk, a lot of bread with butter. Having nourished himself, he returned to the hotel. And now, yes, the man at the desk did have something for him.

“Someone left this for you just a moment ago.” Mousy felt a strange sensation as he picked up the envelope with the name “Yossi” written on it in well-formed handwriting. Inside was the text he had been waiting for. Or better: inside were his future and his destiny. Once again he managed to hide his true feelings. Pretending indifference and even boredom, he told the man he would be in his room. He climbed the stairs, but his anxiety prevented him from putting the key into the lock. Finally he opened the door, entered the room, locked the door behind him, and sat down on the bed. He examined the envelope. It had been sealed, but so lightly that he could open it without difficulty. It contained a single sheet of paper, a few lines typed on it in German, with the signature of Franz Kafka below:

Leoparden im Tempel

Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schliesslich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.

Mousy read the text ten times over. And with each reading his desperation grew. For starters, he wasn’t able to understand all the words. His basic German wasn’t up to the task. The one clear item was the title: “Leopards in the Temple.” Clearer, but still no less enigmatic than the rest.

What was to be done? He had no way of deciphering it without the sheet of paper he had lost that was intended to serve as the key for revealing the message hidden here, provided he selected some words and added others. It was an undertaking doomed to failure. And all because of his own stupendous incompetence. He eyed himself in the broken mirror. He breathed deeply. Calm down, he said to himself, try to stay calm, try to think. He resolved to confront the problem step by step. What would be the first step? To understand what was written there in German. Perhaps he would then be able to puzzle out those words that would take him to his goal. His German was not good enough to achieve this from a text that he guessed was literary. He would need to have it translated into Russian, or even better, into Yiddish. But who could do that? The old man of the synagogue, of course! Hadn’t he offered Mousy his services? The translation might cost him some money, but it would be worth it. He decided to go to the synagogue right away. Before going, however, he copied the text onto another sheet. He couldn’t show the original to anyone for one reason: Kafka’s signature was on it. A rash act, and only explicable as owing to the writer’s vanity. Apparently, Dr. Franz—who perhaps was a beginner, like Mousy— needed to learn a thing or two about revolutionary humility.

When Mousy arrived at the Altneuschule, the old man was in the atrium with a group of American tourists. He was telling the story of the Golem in English in great detail, and with a gusto easily explained by the well-to-do appearance of the visitors. The old man finished his speech, gathered the thanks and generous tips from the visitors, and only then turned to Mousy. “You again? To what do I owe the honor?” he asked ironically.

“I need to ask you for a favor. I need something translated into Yiddish.”

“I’m not a translator,” said the old man.

“I know that. But you speak a lot of languages. . . . Just now I saw you telling the story of the Golem in English. . . .”

“O.K.,” sighed the old man, “as long as it’s not very long.”

“It’s not long at all.” Mousy took the paper out of his pocket and gave it to the old man. “It’s just these few lines.” The old man read and reread the text.

“This thing is very strange,” he said, intrigued. “What is this? A puzzle, a riddle?”

“A riddle, exactly,” said Mousy. “A riddle. And there’s money at stake. I made a bet with a guy who’s rooming in my hotel. According to him, no one has come up with the answer to this charade yet. I accepted the challenge, and I’m ready to decode this thing. You know: we Jews love word games.”

The old man laughed: “True enough. I’ll help, but on one condition: if you win the bet, I want my share.” He outlined the story in Yiddish. Mousy learned that the leopards broke into the temple and drank the contents of the sacrificial chalices to the last drop; that this was repeated so often that in the end everyone knew it would happen, and that finally the scene became part of the ritual. “So?” asked the old man, “Do you know what it’s about?”

“No,” said Mousy, “I don’t know. Do you?”

“Me? Who am I to know? If I knew the Cabbalah like the rabbi Judah Löwy, maybe I would be able to help you: the Cabbalists are masters at deciphering obscure stuff. But that’s not the case, I’m just a shammes. I am, if I do say so myself, an educated man, a polyglot, but I know my limitations. You’re going to have to look for someone capable of explaining what is written here.”


“I don’t know,” said the old man, adding in a playful manner: “maybe Freud could tell you something. He deciphers dreams, maybe he can decipher this thing that seems like the outline of a nightmare.” He laughed. “But Freud lives a long way away, in Vienna. . . . Seriously, I don’t know who could help you.”

“O.K.,” sighed Mousy, “in any case I’m grateful for your help.” He offered a few coins that the man refused. “No, you don’t owe me anything. I did this to help out.” Grateful, Mousy said goodbye.

“Stop by anytime,” said the old man, “but without bringing any of these puzzles.”

Mousy returned to the hotel. The man eyed him ironically from the front desk: “You look like a worried man. Apparently you’re not succeeding in solving your problems.” His face darkened. “Remember, your days are numbered. And time is running out.”

Mousy climbed the stairs, entered his room and closed the door. He had made up his mind not to become disheartened. After all, he had already overcome several trials: he had gotten to Prague and received the text. True, he didn’t have the code that would allow him to decipher it. So he would try to discover the code himself.

He took from his suitcase a notebook and pencil and wrote down the text just as the shammes had translated it. He read it again. Then he took Kafka’s text and compared the two until he was certain that he had understood, word for word, what was written there in German.

(Had he understood? Perhaps. This Kafka was difficult. If he could, Mousy would grab the telephone and complain: “I’m not understanding what you write, comrade Kafka. I’m sorry to have to put it that way, but I just don’t understand. Maybe your text represents a new epoch in literature, one that is beyond the reach of the majority of readers. But allow me to ask, comrade: can what is out of reach of the majority of readers be revolutionary? Take me, for example. I’m no intellectual, I’m a simple person, a simple village Jew who believes in the revolution as a way of changing his life and the lives of his people—don’t I have a right to texts that speak to me, that transmit a progressive message? Simple village Jews are human beings too, comrade, they also need books. Practice some self-criticism and think of them next time you’re writing something like your ‘Leopards in the Temple.’”)

His next step now—if he still had his satchel—would be to cover the text of “Leopards in the Temple” with the piece of paper for deciphering the text. The holes in the page would select certain words from Kafka’s text. Joined with the words that he had brought, these would yield the correct message. How to go on without the code?

One starting point would be to determine the keywords, words that would make sense in the description of a revolutionary task. Words like “break into” couldn’t belong to this group, for example, because they didn’t suggest anything, didn’t point to any course of action. Break into . . . where? Break into . . . when? Break into . . . how? Break into . . . for what? Mousy liked the phrase, which he considered daring and revolutionary, but he had to admit that in and of itself it lacked meaning. Neither the progressive “break into” nor the reactionary “repeats itself”; better to concentrate on the nouns, with or without adjectives. In the end, everything that is concrete can be named.

After thinking for a long while, he underlined “leopards,” “temple,” “sacrificial chalices,” and “ritual.” Let’s start with leopards.

Mousy had never seen a leopard. Nor a tiger, nor a lion, nor a panther, nor any of these ferocious animals. They talked a lot about wolves in the village, and travelers feared them, but nevertheless he hadn’t even seen a wolf. His experience of wild animals was limited to an old, illustrated children’s book in Russian, titled A Voyage Through Africa. An engraving, still clearly etched in his memory, showed various savage felines: but which of these was the leopard? It wasn’t the one with the mane: lions had manes. It wasn’t the black one: panthers were black.

Identifying a leopard was of course beside the point. The main thing was to discover how leopards might become the target for revolutionary action. Mousy couldn’t answer this question. Was the idea to go attacking leopards? In the zoo, assuming Prague had one? And why? What did Trotsky have against leopards?

Perhaps the leopards symbolized something. A leopard is a wild beast. Capitalists are ferocious in their greed for profit and their exploitation of the proletariat. Killing a leopard in a zoo might be a way of demonstrating to the capitalists that their days were numbered. But, reasoned Mousy, workers are also ferocious when demanding their rights or going on strike. How to differentiate the ferocity of one class from that of the other? How to tell progressive ferocity from its reactionary counterpart? Could the answer be to leave an explanatory message at the side of the executed leopard, explaining that the animal had been sacrificed to serve as an example to those in power?

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 ruined 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 there 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?

Assuming, on the other hand, that the leopards signified revolutionaries, there was another puzzling aspect: the final phrase. The invasion of the felines, according to Kafka, became predictable. Well, could a revolutionary be predictable? Wasn’t the essence of revolution exactly its unpredictability that would allow the fortress of power to be taken by storm? Had the leopards been bureaucratized—let’s go punch the clock—like Kafka in his office? The invasions, having become predictable, were incorporated into the ritual. Did this indicate a cooptation, an accommodation to bourgeois values? Or, in Kafka’s view, had the animals taken power in a coalition government? But coalition . . . hmmm, coalition . . . coalition was a dangerous idea, to say the least. Yossi was always saying that government by coalition would become a possibility only if the revolutionary party kept to its principles, and even then only transitionally, in order to face down its powerful foes. After defeating them, the revolutionaries should rid themselves of these fellow travelers, even throw them overboard off the insurrectionary boat—figuratively, that is—or perhaps not so figuratively.

In the end, these leopards were, to say the least, controversial animals. How to come to a conclusion about them? Mousy resorted to an imaginative exercise, bringing them to trial before the People’s Court—a trial for which he became at once the prosecutor, the public defender, and the judge. Arguments and counterarguments followed one another in a veritable dialectical duel. Suddenly, the truth became clear and he, as the judge, handed down the sentence: Kafka’s text identified the leopards as a group of especially aggressive predators, capable of destroying the most traditional values. What kind of predators? Bourgeois predators. The Manifesto was quite clear on this topic: the bourgeoisie stifled feudal, patriarchal, and idyllic relations; it drowned religious ecstasy, chivalric enthusiasm, philistine sentimentalism in the frigid waters of egoistic calculation (similar to the calculation that allowed the return of the leopards to become predictable). The bourgeoisie had made the Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals all out-of-date—not to mention, of course, temples in general. In sum, the text—a metaphor based on the Manifesto—was not asking Mousy to search for a group with codename Leopards. But it also was not asking him to kill any leopards. If these really appeared in the final, decoded message, the felines would serve at most as a reference. Reference for what? He would find this out later. Right now he could move on to the next keyword.

A sample from Moacyr Scliar's
Kafka's Leopards

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