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Moacyr Scliar: Os leopardos de Kafka (Kafka’s Leopards)

Leopards break in­to the temple and drink up the offering in the chalices; this happens again and again; finally, one can predict their action in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.

This is one of the aphorisms from Franz Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms. As you can see it is not what we would call Kafkaesque. It is, however, key to this book, as the title indicates. The full text will be repeated twice, both times in the original German (in both the Portuguese original and English translation). Do not worry if you do not read German. The original text, quoted above, appears at the beginning in English and, anyway, as you will see, the actual meaning of the text has little relevance to our story.

Our hero is known as Mousy because he looked like a melancholic, solitary mouse but his real name is Benjamin Kantarovitch. He lives in a Jewish village, not far from Odessa. The year is 1916 and it is not a good time to be a Jew in the Russian Empire, because of pogroms and the like. His father is a tailor and wants his son to be rabbi. As much to annoy his father as for any other reason, he declines to become a rabbi.

However, before we get to him as a young man, we meet him when he is sixty-five and living in Brazil, a curmudgeonly bachelor who is a tailor, like his father, but who is not doing well because of competition from factory-made garments. We also meet his great-nephew, Jaime, known by the code-name of Cantaloupe, who is arrested and tortured by the police who think that he and his friends are a part of a secret communist cell. They are particularly suspicious when they find a code message in his pocket, in German, signed by one Franz Kafka, clearly some sort of spy. The message, of course, is the leopard aphorism we have already met.

Back in Bessarabia, Mousy has become a communist under the influence of his friend, Yossi. Yossi disappears for a couple of weeks and returns, saying that he has been to Paris, where he met his hero, Trotsky. Trotsky has entrusted him with a special mission. However, Yossi falls very ill and is clearly dying, so he entrusts his mission to a reluctant Mousy. Mousy has never even left his village before but now he has to go to Prague in the middle of a war, when there are troops and refugees everywhere, in order to pick up a coded message.

Not surprisingly, things turn out to be very complicated and things go wrong. Also not surprisingly, he does get a coded message and it is, of course, our Kafka leopard message, which our hero tries desperately to interpret, as he has mislaid the code key. He meets and falls in love with Bertha and he meets Kafka but his mission cannot be said to be a success. Back home in his village, he learns that Yossi died the day after he left.

The Russian Revolution takes place and Mousy’s father feels they would be better off in Brazil so off they set. Mousy is not too keen. However, with the death of Yossi and the break-up of their communist group, he concurs and they head for Porto Alegre, where we will find him more than forty years later.

Having no children himself, Mousy is very close to Jaime, not least because Jaime is a reader and so is Mousy but no-one else in the family is. Can he get Jaime out of jail and why does Jaime have the Kafka aphorism on him when he is arrested?

This is a clever book. It really is a simple fable but Scliar has mixed in real life – Kafka and Trotsky, the grim situation in Brazil under the military dictatorship, an unlikely hero, his one true love, World War I , the problems faced by the Jewish community, and a clever use of Kafka’s works, particularly a very short one which does not seem Kafkaesque, including a misinterpretation – twice – of the Kafka aphorism as a coded message. It won’t take you long to read but you will certainly enjoy it.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Companhia das Letras
First English translation in 2011 by Texas Tech University Press
Translated by Thomas O Beebee