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for the week of August 10, 2011

On 27 February 2011, the Brazilian Academy of Letters lost an internationally renowned and widely translated member, Moacyr Scliar. Whatever the vagaries of literary fashion to come, Scliar’s place in the annals of Brazilian history seems assured, as the first author to give Jews a consistent and prominent place in the country’s literary imagination.

It remains to be seen what Scliar’s final projects had been, and whether they were far enough along to appear posthumously. For the moment, one project the Brazilian author had contributed to just before being laid low was the English translation of his novella, Kafka’s Leopards (Os Leopardos de Kafka), now appearing in the Americas series of Texas Tech Press. Scliar had read through my translation and made a single, but crucial correction: at times I had carelessly substituted “message” for the Portuguese “texto,” a word that is cognate with English text. Scliar pointed out that the two terms must be kept conceptually separate in order to preserve one of the main themes of the novella: not every text yields a message, while others yield too many.

The extended European setting of Kafka’s Leopards is adventuresome for Scliar, but Kafka’s Leopards is a frame-tale connecting Porto Alegre in 1965, Brazil’s southernmost metropolis, with Bessarabia and Prague in 1917. Scliar’s depictions of the Jewish-Brazilians of Porto Alegre have repeatedly emphasized the transatlantic connection between Old World and New that we see in this text as well. The author himself has categorized much of his fiction as belonging to the “literature of immigration.” The title story of the collection A Balada do Falso Messias (The Ballad of the False Messiah) opens with two Russian Jews conversing on board the steamer that is carrying them to Brazil, expressing their relief at no longer having to fear annihilation in a pogrom. Benjamin Kantorovitch, the protagonist of Kafka’s Leopards who moves from the Old World to the New, and his family could be on the same ship; they are certainly fleeing the same set of circumstances.

Brazilian prose fiction has been shaped by authors who write about their own region or city: Machado de Assis for Rio de Janeiro, José Lins do Rego and Rachel de Queiroz for the Northeast, Jorge Amado for Bahia, João Guimarães Rosa for Minas Gerais, Márcio Souza for the Amazon, João Almino for Brasília, Érico Veríssimo for the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, and Moacyr Scliar for Porto Alegre, the largest conurbation of that state and one that has welcomed many immigrants, including European Jews. In one sense, Scliar fit the regionalist mold, setting many of his longer texts in the Porto Alegre neighborhood of Bom Fim, where he himself had grown up as the son of immigrants from Russia. And that focus on his Jewish neighborhood made Scliar the first Brazilian author to give the life of Jews in Brazil a central place in his fiction. Like Amado and Guimarães Rosa, Scliar added elements of magic realism to many of the events he wrote about, but he owed these techniques more to the work of Franz Kafka than to precursors in Brazil or Latin America. Allusions to, and even direct citations of, the Czech-Jewish author’s work abound in Scliar’s fiction, culminating in the appearance of Kafka as a central character in Kafka’s Leopards. Before embarking on these portrayals, Scliar studied medicine and continued to work most of his adult life for the government health services of Brazil—again, something of a parallel with Kafka, who worked for an insurance company during the day and wrote through the night. Not surprisingly, the body and its ailments figure in many of Scliar’s works. The interior monologue of the aging protagonist of The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes (A Estranha Nação de Rafael Mendes) begins with an assessment of his bladder. Naturally, in Kafka’s Leopards the tuberculosis of Franz Kafka, one of the great invalids of world literature, receives a telling description from the knowing perception of another Jew, a resident of one of the Russian shtetls that were the origin of many who eventually settled in Bom Fim. In Kafka’s Leopards, tuberculosis becomes a bond between Yiddish-speaking Benjamin “Mousy” Kantorovitch from the Bessarabian shtetl and the sophisticated, German-speaking urban Jew Franz Kafka:

Kafka looked at him fixedly. Suddenly he started coughing. A small, dry cough, subdued but persistent, alarming. Mousy shivered. He knew that cough: it indicated, he knew this for sure, tuberculosis—the specter that joined the pogroms in terrorizing Jewish villages. Kafka did not live in a village, but he had all the markings of a victim: the thinness, the pallor, the cheeks colored slightly red. In addition to the cold of the frigid little house that couldn’t be good for a tubercular. An immense sorrow took hold of Mousy, the same sorrow as would possess his mother if she were in his shoes: you’re sick, Kafka, very sick, that cough is not a laughing matter, it’s not a fiction, it’s tuberculosis.

In his first novel, The War in Bom Fim (A Guerra no Bom Fim), Scliar had described the suicide of Joel, who fails his first exam in the goyim school his parents insist on sending him to because it is supposedly superior to the Yiddish school, as though the schoolboy were the hero of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Specifically, the rat poison Joel intentionally eats turns him into a cockroach:

A large cockroach flew over Bom Fim and watched with delight the wake on Felipe Camarão Street. It is said that his story was told, in a slightly different manner, by a Jewish author named Franz Kafka. It is also said that he was Czech, died in 1924, was an author of the absurd, alienation, et cetera. It’s possible. But it’s also possible that Franz Kafka lived on Henrique Dias Street. A skinny child who spoke little and on Sunday dressed in a man’s suit and tie, more or less matched the description of this Kafka.

In the overall context of Scliar’s physiological concerns, even the body of the protagonist of The Centaur in the Garden (O Centauro no Jardim), the novel that established Scliar’s reputation in the English-speaking world, goes beyond just a symbolic representation in which the man-horse equals the Brazilian Jew (or is it the Jew-Brazilian?). Like Kafka’s animal stories,The Centaur in the Garden charms with the realistic detailing of its fantastic premise of man-horse existence: the infant’s feces stink horribly until the midwife thinks to mix lettuce and other greens in with his milk, and he learns to resist the human, oral-stage urge to stick into his mouth his fists and feet, with their sharp hooves..

In Kafka’s Leopards, Scliar has created a story that addresses themes of Brazilian and European history, Jewish writing, the travels of literature, and fundamental questions of reading, such as how the rightness or wrongness of a literary interpretation is to be judged. Scliar’s text becomes in this regard as self-referential and critifictional as a short story by J. L. Borges, a novel by Italo Calvino—or a Kafka text such as “The Silence of the Sirens” or “The Truth About Sancho Panza.” Mousy’s story is one of a series of textual and interpretive substitutions, as he moves from Torah to the Communist Manifesto to the Kafka aphorism. That aphorism becomes different things to different people in different contexts. Not only the meaning, but the very genre of the text changes. Mousy takes it to be a revolutionary message in code, but explains it to the shammes as a puzzle he must solve for a contest. Conversely, Mousy goes to Prague under another name, and is constantly taken by others in the text, from the sinister desk clerk at the hotel to the sympathetic Bertha, for something other than what he is. Mousy’s brief stay in Prague becomes a giant, dialectical game of interpreting and being interpreted. Kafka, we might say, is also as disguised for Mousy, as he was for many of his Prague colleagues and contemporaries, almost none of whom recognized him as a literary genius: only decades later does Mousy realize that he was lucky enough to receive a text from one of the giants of world literature. In Brazil, the material text given to Mousy by Kafka becomes an object of exchange, as Mousy urges his fugitive nephew Jaime to sell it to an antiquarian in São Paulo, and a sacrificial object devoured by the leopard-like chief of police in exchange for Jaime’s freedom. In his study of the puzzling relationship between writing and secrecy, Frank Kermode uses Kafka’s parable to illustrate the paradoxical and unstable difference between “insiders”—those with a special status or knowledge that enables them to grasp the hidden meaning of a text—and clueless “outsiders.” The leopards represent the penetrative aspect of hermeneutic interpretation, the temple the reserve of meaning that the cryptic text always holds in reserve. The leopards are able to “break open” or “divide the word” of the text—except for the fact that they have now become part of it. Outsiders become insiders become outsiders again.1 Such is the alternation of blindness and insight in Scliar’s novella.

Reviewed by
Thomas O. Beebee

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