"Kafka's Leopards" by Moacyr Scliar [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar, translated by Thomas O. Beebee
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Why This Book Should Win: Texas Tech’s “The Americas” series has been quietly putting together a fantastic list of Latin American authors, and this would thrust them (deservedly) into the spotlight. Plus, Scliar died last year, and for some reason that makes me feel like he deserves some special recognition.
Kafka’s Leopards is a short (96 page) novella that happens to be one of the most entertaining books on this year’s longlist. It centers around the character of Mousy, who, when he was growing up near Odessa in the early part of the twentieth century, got involved with a group of Trotskyites, mainly through the influence of his radical friend Yossi. (As you do. I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to participate in a revolution?)
In fact, Yossi had met THE Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky had entrusted him carrying out a secret radical act. But when Yossi comes down with a terrible illness, he asks Mousy to stand in for him, and travel to Prague where he’s to meet a revolutionary writer who will give him a message that will explain what he’s supposed to do next.
Anyway, novella-length story short, Mousy loses all the necessary information on the train (revolutionaries are so disorganized) and tries to puzzle out what he’s supposed to do. Which leads him to calling up a one Franz Kafka and asking for the text.
Lots of mistaken identity mishaps ensue, but Mousy is eventually given Kafka’s “Leopards in the Temple” aphorism which he believes he’s supposed to interpret in order to fulfill his mission. In a slick move that draws attention to the situation of translation in an interesting way, Mousy can’t read this and takes it to a old Jewish man at a synagogue who interprets it for him:
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.
Naturally, more mishaps occur, and the adventure-story aspect explodes as Mousy tries to makes sense of this aphorism in a way that connects the text with the city of Prague with the Russian Revolution. Told with a deftness that is both sincere and light with comedy, this part of the novella is extremely fun to read, and must’ve been fun to translate as well. (Goes without saying, seeing that this award focuses on the “best translations,” but Thomas Beebee’s translation is very admirable, mostly for the way in which he emphasizes the sort of joyful, playful tone that runs throughout this book of constant failures.)
To make this more interesting, it’s worth nothing that Mousy’s story is really only the subplot . . . The novella has a frame narrative involving one of Mousy’s relatives, and their revolutionary troubles in 1965.
For such a quick, enjoyable read, there are a lot of levels to this novella that make it a rich, rewarding work. I’ll let Thomas Beebee explain via this bit from his wonderful introduction:
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 take 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.
On top of all these serious reasons for why this book should win, it’s also a beautiful edition, and Irene Vilar—who edits the whole series—is a wonderful advocate for international literature: two more valid reasons why we could be crowning this book as the 2012 champion on May 4th.