Kafka's Leopards
by Moacyr Scliar (Leopardos de Kafka, 2000)
translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee (2011)
Texas Tech University Press (2011)
96 pp

This novella is precisely why I love the Best Translated Book Award. I hadn’t paid much attention to this little book put out by Texas Tech University Press as part of their “The Americas” series, so, were it not for its placement on the longlist, I doubt I would have read it, which would have been a real shame because Kafka’s Leopards is wonderful, at once charming and sad.

The book opens in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in 1965 with a police report on the arrest of an alleged radical, the young man Jaime Kantarovitch. There is little of note on his person, but one small piece of paper catches the interest of the police. The paper has a few dozen words in German and, “[b]elow the text, the signature of a certain ‘Franz Kafka.'”

These policemen in the 1960s are not the only people in this story to suspect that this short German text is some kind of code used by radicals. After the short police report, we step back in time to 1916, to a small village close to Odessa, Ukraine, where Jaime’s uncle, Benjamin Kantarovitch is a young man, wheening himself of the Torah in order to take up the revolutionary cause. Benjamin is also known as Mousy, and though he desperately wants to be a revolutionary, Mousy is just a nickname, not a codename. It seems there is little Mousy can do in this small village to realize his dream of helping the revolution, but one day his friend Yossi returns from a meeting with Leon Trotsky himself, and Yossi has come back with a secret mission. Mousy is perhaps a little jealous, but such is his love for Trotsky and the revolution that his prevailing sentiment is one of gratitude that he can be even this close to the action. Before he can embark, though, Yossi falls ill and, fearing death, passes the mission on to Mousy.

Thus begins a series of misadventures. The first step in the mission is to go to Prague to find a man and retrieve a coded text. Along with some tickets, money, papers, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto, Yossi gives Mousy an important envelope that contains the name of contact and the key to deciphering the coded text.

Apparently the coded text will unveil the name of “the target” as well as another contact who will tell Mousy what to do to the target. We never even come close to getting that far, though. The trip to Prague is disorienting, and, just when he is starting to feel a bit more confident in his role as true revolutionary, Mousy loses the all-important envelope. Desperate, he determines not to fail and tries to figure out what the missing envelope might have held. Of course, it’s all guess-work; his only knowledge is that the man he was supposed to meet is a writer and a Jew like himself and Yossi. By talking to a rather gossipy shammes at the synagogue where the Golem is buried, Mousy eventually hear’s Kafka’s name. “Sort of an oddball . . .” says the shammes. “An oddball. That seemed promising to Mousy.”

A rebel. Yes, this was interesting. Behind the rebel, the revolutionary might be lurking. Must be lurking. Only the person who doesn’t conform, who doesn’t accept things as they are, who never feels entirely comfortable is capable of changing society. And the name . . . Kafka seemed to him like a good name for a revolutionary: the echoing of the “k” sound suggested determination, tenacity. Like the “t” in Trotsky, whose name, he recalled, also had a “k” in it. Only an impression, of course, but what else did he have to go on except impression?

At this time, Kafka was working at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. Mousy is confused by the ornate building: “Yes, one expected a revolutionary to have contact with workers — but not through an institution like this one.” Well, maybe Kafka is a mole and this job gave him the opportunity to find men who are no longer useful at the factory but may still be able to hurl grenades. Yes, Kafka must be the man. And, sure enough, when Mousy asks Kafka for “the text,” Mousy receives a small piece of paper with a few German words, as well as Kafka’s signature — a clumsy move, Mousy thinks.

And so Mousy receives from Kafka one of Kafka’s famous super short stories, part of the Zürau Aphorisms, “The Leopards in the Temple.”

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.

We get several very fun pages of Mousy trying to interpret this code. Does Prague even have a zoo? What does Trotsky have against leopards — who could the leopards stand for? Why is a revolutionary writing in such an obfuscated way? Mousy grumbles to himself, “Simple village Jews are human beings too, comrade, they also need books. Practice some self-criticism and think of them next time you’re writing something like your ‘Leopards in the Temple.'” The pages of trying to interpret the text move into a period when Mousy tries to execute what he believes is the coded plot, and eventually we end up in Rio Grande do Sul.

It’s a very fun book, but it also has a darker side. I don’t know exactly how to interpret “The Leopards in the Temple.” There’s the way we interpreted it in literature class, as a statement about art, about the interpretation of texts (there’s plenty of that here), about the outsider coming in. Are the leopards revolutionaries who come in an disrupt the status quo (only to eventually become part of it)? Or are the leopards symbols of the terrible things that disturb our lives but that we eventually accept and even make an integral part of our lives? In any context, the parable has some application to this book.

As the book enters its final phase, a lot of terrible things have happened to Mousy — it’s no longer funny, and we may yearn for the simpler days when Mousy was just setting out on his silly adventure. As an old man in the 1960s, doing his best to watch out for his young nephew Jaime, Mousy is resigned to life’s tragedies. Despite this, when I finished the book I had a smile on my face. It’s that kind of book.

Now, I need to find some more Moacyr Scliar.

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