The Cen­taur in the Garden

Moa­cyr Scliar; Mar­garet A. Neves, trans.
  • Review
By – March 8, 2012

Abra­ham Abinu is the pro­to­typ­i­cal stranger in a strange land’, the strongest theme in Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. In his fic­tion, Moa­cyr Scliar uses ali­en­ness to paint the plight of the new immi­grant, and the next gen­er­a­tion; per­haps nev­er more so than in his 1980 clas­sic novel­la, The Cen­taur in the Gar­den. The sto­ry is nar­rat­ed by Guedali, the youngest child of Russ­ian set­tlers in a remote rur­al sec­tion of Brazil. He is born part boy, part colt. He and his fam­i­ly strug­gle to adapt. Should he be hid­den or exploit­ed? How does the spe­cial child affect the fam­i­ly dynam­ic? (Anoth­er Jew­ish theme– favoritism and sib­ling rival­ry.)

Even­tu­al­ly Guedali under­goes an oper­a­tion to remove the equine hindquar­ters, and the forelegs grad­u­al­ly morph into human legs and feet. But then the author seems to sug­gest none of that real­ly hap­pened; he was human all along. Is it a dream? (or night­mare), fan­ta­sy, fable , para­ble, alle­go­ry… etc.? (Yes, yes, and yes…) What does it mat­ter, says Scliar; we are all strangers: to our coun­try­men, to our fam­i­lies, even our spous­es, and ulti­mate­ly to our­selves. Shame­less­ly bor­row­ing from mythol­o­gy, folk­lore, Yid­dish lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, the Torah, the Tal­mud, and Jew­ish mys­ti­cism as well as the shift­ing real­i­ty of Latin Amer­i­can mag­i­cal real­ism, Scliar crafts a won­der­ful, enjoy­able sto­ry, as well as bril­liant mes­sages that tran­scend the medi­um.

In Kafka’s Leop­ards, a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten mod­ern fairy tale, not pre­vi­ous trans­lat­ed, Moa­cyr Scliar is again at the top of his form, expand­ing on one of Franz Kafka’s most famous para­bles. That Scliar admires and pays homage to Kaf­ka hard­ly needs to be stat­ed- one could hard­ly imag­ine a bet­ter lit­er­ary heir. Kafka’s orig­i­nal text, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish: 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 a strange state­ment. Maybe it’s in code… Scliar takes that thought and runs, from a Russ­ian shtetl to pic­turesque Prague (cit­ing Kaf­ka and Rab­bi Judah Lowy’s famous Golem as well), to far­away Brazil, weav­ing a poignant, some­times com­ic, tale of intrigue, pol­i­tics, rev­o­lu­tion, mis­un­der­stand­ing, mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion, rein­ter­pre­ta­tion, love, betray­al, pseudo­his­to­ry, and a lot more. All this, in such a slim vol­ume.

Both books have valu­able, inter­est­ing intro­duc­tions that pro­vide insight and con­text. In Kafka’s Leopard’s, trans­la­tor Thomas Bee­bee notes that “[I]nterestingly, the novel­la that uses as a char­ac­ter one of the major influ­ences on mag­i­cal real­ism exhibits not a hint of that style. .. It is as though the pres­ence of Kaf­ka were enough….” Bee­bee also sheds light on the con­nec­tions between Cen­taur and Leop­ards. When Moa­cyr Scliar died in 2011, not only Brazil lost its major fab­u­list. We all did. 

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Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

Discussion Questions