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.
The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on Moacyr Scliar’s Kafka’s Leopards forthcoming from Texas Tech University Press in Thomas Beebee’s translation from the Brazilian Portuguese.
As Lily recommends in her review, you should definitely read this piece by Thomas Beebee and then read this preview of the book. Scliar is one of the past century’s best writers, and it’s awesome that Texas Tech is making more of his work available to American readers.
Click here to read Lily’s piece on this short novel.
I was going to write a review of Kafka’s Leopards by the recently deceased Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar, and then I got around to reading the piece that translator Thomas Beebee wrote for us on Scliar, his writings, and Kafka’s Leopards and realized that there was not much enlightenment that I could offer on any of these topics that Thomas had not already covered. So I come to you today, humbly, from a place of little knowledge, and suggest that you read Thomas’s wonderful piece on all things surrounding Kafka’s Leopards and then go ahead and read the book itself.
Running at under 100 pages, Kafka’s Leopards tells the story of Mousy, the logistics of which you can basically read from start to finish on the back of the book, but which is told with much more love on the part of Scliar. In brief, Mousy is a Brazilian Jew who is summoned to carry out a plot on the part of Trotsky which involves going to Prague and receiving and decoding a text. Mousy manages to mess this up and instead ends up with a short text from Franz Kafka himself, concerning leopards.
Mousy is a sympathetic character who can fall in love with a woman from a smile, and who is fiercely dedicated to the ideals of the Communist movement, but in whose whole life there is but this one seminal anecdote which overwhelms with its intrigue and its hijinks. This is the story of that anecdote, and its brief return to the limelight later in Mousy’s life.
Quite frankly, there is no reason not to read this book. Scliar entertains and moves the readers as much as he may perhaps dwell on the idea of the transmission of messages, the interpretation of texts (read Beebee’s piece for more on this!). He is never heavy-handed, and in fact, handles the character of Mousy as gently as such a character must be handled. We can practically feel the sweat beading on Mousy’s forehead, the warm heat building with anxiety, as well as the pride that swells up within him when he has carried out part of his mission correctly, or so he believes. Scliar writes to a perfect length, not letting the story going any longer or shorter than is necessary; and in the interest of not exceeding the book in length, I will simply conclude that reading this book was a pleasure and I would highly recommend it as a quick end-of-summer read.
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 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. Such is the alternation of blindness and insight in Scliar’s novella.
This week at Read This Next we’re featuring Kafka’s Leopards, a short book by celebrated and prolific Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar that’s translated from the Portuguese by Thomas Beebee and forthcoming from Texas Tech University Press.
This book is one of strange misunderstandings, attributions of vital meaning to coincidence, that create the central story of interest in the protagonist’s life. Mousy is a tailor who always insists on cutting left sleeves a little shorter so that it is easier to read a wristwatch, much to the chagrin of his customers. Entrusted with a secret mission, one originally issued by Trotsky himself, Mousy heads out to Prague and bumbles his way into the life of Franz Kafka.
Fittingly, this title originally caught the eye of translator Thomas Beebee as he was looking through a shelf Portuguese books and glimpsed Kafka’s name on one of the spines. This week we have an introduction to the novel from Beebee himself, and a full review on Friday.
In case you’re not familiar with Scliar already, here’s a link to his obituary, which includes reference to the whole “Max and the Cats” and “Life of Pi” controversy:
‘‘Max and the Cats,’‘ about a Jewish youth who flees Nazi Germany on a ship carrying wild animals to a Brazilian zoo and, after a shipwreck, ends up sharing a lifeboat with a jaguar, achieved fame twice over. Critically praised on its publication in 1981, it touched off a literary storm in 2002 when the Canadian writer Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for ‘‘Life of Pi,’‘ about an Indian youth trapped on a boat with a tiger.
Mr. Martel’s admission that he borrowed the idea led to an impassioned debate among writers and critics on the nature of literary invention and the ownership of words and images.
“In a certain way I feel flattered that another writer considered my idea to be so good, but on the other hand, he used that idea without consulting me or even informing me,’‘ Mr. Scliar told The New York Times. ‘‘An idea is intellectual property.”
I hesitate to even mention that, since it would be much better if Scliar were known in this country for his great works—The Centaur in the Garden, The War in Bom Fim—than this controversy. But it is kind of interesting, and it’s always fun to besmirch overrated novels . . .
Anyway, click here to read the beginning of Mousy’s trip to Prague and the misfortune that begins the whole jumbled series of events.
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