“You’ve got something in common with Kafka, there,” says an old man in the tale Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar. “When I told him the story of the Golem, I warned him: we shouldn’t create things we can’t control. And fiction is just that, something that can’t be controlled. You start to write, to imagine, and who knows where it’s going to end? And then, more books for what? Everything important has been written in the Torah.”
Yesterday afternoon I read Kafka’s Leopards. It’s a fantastic story: I mean really a fantasy, as well as highly enjoyable and imaginative. Like many fables it reads very smoothly on the story level, and begs you to read in a variety of meanings – like the one in the paragraph above.
In the tale, for rather involved reasons, Benjamin, a poor tailor from Chernovitsky (a Bessarbian shtetl near Odessa) travels to Prague, thinking he has an assignment from a revolutionary cell led by Trotsky. His trip to Prague is challenging – World War I is going on in between the two places and (like my father also a poor tailor in his story of going from his own shtetl to Pinsk) Benjamin must first overcome a challenge: to cross a river by hiring a ferry rowed by scary men who could easily steal his money or push him into the river. Realism in the middle of the story? Or is a ferry boat symbolic? Real to me.
Once in Prague, Benjamin has no idea what to do to complete his mission for his idol Trotsky, but thinks he’s supposed to contact a leftist writer and obtain “a text.” He left his instructions on the train. But somehow, he goes to a synagogue to find out – and the author he hears of is Kafka. The shammes of the synagogue, who gives tours in exchange for tips, tells him of Kafka and much else, including what Kafka said. Benjamin asks for Kafka’s response: “What did he say?”
The shammes answers, “Nothing. Didn’t say anything. Didn’t pay any attention to me. … Speaking of treasure and tips, you could contribute a bit more.”
Soon afterwards, Benjamin actually meets Kafka and asks him for “a text.” Kafka gives him a mysterious piece of writing – later explained as a contribution to a Yiddish newspaper, one of many mix-ups in the tale. While the story is pure fantasy, the one-sentence Kafka story is a real Kafka story: “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. – Franz Kafka.”
The remainder of the story is about the poor tailor’s experience in Prague, his return to Chernovitsky, and finally about the end of his life in Puerto Alegre, Brazil (where the first few paragraphs of the story had already given away his end – as the uncle of another radical in an oppressive country – repeating his own experiences, sort of). And about a variety of ways to look at Kafka’s "text."
You can read all sorts of meanings into it. Or not. After all, it’s a story by a Brazilian Jewish magical realist twentieth-century writer, what would you expect?
Though Scliar's work was written long ago (and he died last year), the story was only recently translated into English. Sad that he’s so unknown and underappreciated. And so sad that this book is published so obscurely and at such a high price. Another digression: the sad state of publishing, where this single story less than 100 pages long costs $26.07 on amazon.com (88 cents off list price), no Kindle edition. Lucky for me the library had it.