On 27 February 2011, the Brazilian Academy of Letters lost one of its most internationally renowned and widely translated members, 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 imagination.
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 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 the novella Kafka’s Leopards (Os Leopardos de Kafka), which takes place mostly in Prague. (The translation will appear in Fall 2011, in my translation, in the Texas Tech Americas series.)
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 in an insurance company. 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. Tuberculosis becomes a bond between Yiddish-speaking Benjamin “Mousy” Kantorovitch from Bessarabia 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.
Earlier, in 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 he were the hero of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The rat poison Joel 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 its realistic detailing of the 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 his fist and feet, with their sharp hooves, in his mouth.
In the essay “We’re Not Jews,” Sander Gilman asks the rhetorical question, “Are Jews inherently different? That is, can there be a difference beyond history and culture that is inscribed on the body?” I have been suggesting that Scliar’s fiction answers this question with an implied yes. At the very least, signs and symptoms in the body lead in his fictions to historical and cultural gnosis that counters the dominant narrative of Brazilian history. Nevertheless, analogous to Faulkner’s Mississippians and García Márquez’s Macondistas, Mendes’s Jews of Rio Grande act simultaneously as Jews, as Brazilians, and as citizens of the world. Not every reader of Scliar’s work will be Jewish, but every reader will possess a body and will be intrigued by his depictions of its pains, abnormalities, and pleasures.
Published Jun 16, 2011 Copyright 2011 Thomas O. Beebee