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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Centaur in the Garden

Moacyr Scliar

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To purchase The Centaur in the Garden

Title: The Centaur in the Garden
Author: Moacyr Scliar
Genre: Novel
Written: 1980 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The Centaur in the Garden - US
The Centaur in the Garden - UK
The Centaur in the Garden - Canada
The Centaur in the Garden - India
Le centaure dans le jardin - France
Der Zentaur im Garten - Deutschland
Il centauro nel giardino - Italia
  • Portuguese title: O centauro no jardim
  • Translated by Margaret A. Neves

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Our Assessment:

B+ : genial, capable storytelling, some great ideas

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/6/1985 Jean Franco
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2004 Mark Axelrod
TLS . 18/5/2012 Miguel Fernandes Ceia

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yet if one criticism can be made of The Centaur in the Garden, it is that it is too genial. Except in his sexual encounters, Guedali is not at all monstrous, which leads one to suspect that underpinning the centaur fantasy is some quite ordinary association of animality with sexuality and of civilization with repression. (...) Dr. Scliar's Guedali, who at end of the novel is "like a centaur in the garden, ready to jump the wall in search of freedom," resembles nothing so much as a man with the seven-year itch. Nevertheless, it is interesting to contrast this genial version of the Jewish immigrant experience in Brazil with the mordant irony Jewish writers from other Latin American countries have applied to their estrangement." - Jean Franco, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Clearly, that combination of emotions is present in the novel as Guedali goes through the metaphoric experiences of being Jewish in Brazil. That is, of being Jewish, of not being Jewish, of marrying a non-Jewish centauress, making love to a non-Jewish sphinx, and, eventually, of discovering what his identity actually is. Stylistically, the novel exhibits a kind of restrained inventiveness in that the reader never questions the validity of Sclair’s imaginary world, and the dialogue, even in English, shows a consistency of voice that is exceptional." - Mark Axelrod, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The Centaur in the Garden carries real allegorical force. It raises questions about the dysfunctional feeling of self, Jewish identity and social ostracism, making it a landmark in Brazilian fiction of the twentieth century." - Miguel Fernandes Ceia, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Centaur in the Garden is yet another variation of the half-human, half-beast story, in the tradition of Jean Dutourd's A Dog's Head and the like. It's a fairly creative spin on the idea, too, as the narrator, Guedali Tartakovsky, is born a centaur -- he has the torso and head of a man, but from the waist down he is all horse.
       Guedali is the offspring of a Jewish family the emigrated to Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century, to escape the pogroms in Russia. Not surprisingly, this is also a novel about assimilation and of being a stranger in a strange land -- though many of the issues Guedali deals with aren't specific to his background, but rather your run-of-the-mill existential concerns -- though, of course, exacerbated by his physical ... situation.
       Scliar tells a good story. The surprise of the family -- whose other children are 'normal' -- and how they react and deal with Guedali is well-conceived. The story takes place at the same time as Jews in Europe must fear discovery of their identity, and the way Guedali is kept hidden -- and the uncertainty of what might happen if he were discovered -- makes for an effective parallel to those events playing out elsewhere.
       Adolescent yearnings are tough on Guedali, who remains sequestered even after the family moves to the city. Sex is problematic -- not least because he is endowed with an enormous horse's penis, though it's the whole half-man, half-horse identity that remains the biggest hurdle. Eventually he runs away from home and winds up in one of the few places where he can appear in public -- the circus. Everyone is impressed by what they take to be his costume, and believe him when he says that his brother -- who conveniently likes to keep a very low profile -- is hidden in the lower horse-half.
       After fleeing the circus as well Guedali runs into the one person made for him: another centaur. Her name is Tita, and she too has grown up in relative seclusion in the countryside. They are an ideal pair, and for a while they live fairly happily in this distant place -- but eventually they want more.
       They opt for a radical plan, travelling to Morocco where there's a doctor willing to operate and try to turn them into full-fledged humans. It's a success, more or less: they still have their equine legs (and hooves), but now they can stand and (eventually, in special boots) walk like any other people. Over the years they'll grow more and more human -- with even the hooves eventually transformed into real feet -- though Guedali isn't always entirely happy in this new skin, and sometimes wonders whether he wasn't better off as his true centaur self .....
       The couple live an almost normal life. Guedali becomes a fairly successful businessman, they have friends with whom they get involved in a variety of projects, they even have (normal) children. The uncertain Brazilian political situation in the 1950s and 60s provides a bit of a backdrop, but only intrudes to a small extent. And their centaur-past (and what reminders of it remain) don't have too much of an effect on day-to-day life either. There are small things they do constantly worry about -- like always having their boots, without which they can't really walk, or anyone seeing their legs -- but their lives are surprisingly normal.
       Neither Guedali nor Tita is entirely satisfied, nor are they able to completely sustain their devotion to each other. They are like most married couples, and deal with similar issues. But, despite a few dramatic events (and the appearance of two more only half-human creatures), they manage to stick it out.
       Scliar ties things up together very nicely at the end, a clever bit of writing that turns the novel into a more realistic -- and weightier -- one than the initial impressions would have suggested. But despite the material and all its potential Scliar keeps things fairly light. There is some tragedy and death, and there are parallels to very serious issues, especially the assimilation of South American Jews, but for the most part Scliar is satisfied with skimming on surfaces, and he rarely plunges the reader into any real depths. Not that the book doesn't have some powerful scenes -- Scliar is both inventive and creative, and he comes up with some great ideas -- but again and again there's a sense of him shying away from really going through with it, or going anywhere as far as he could. The Centaur in the Garden remains a very gentle entertainment.
       Very well written, and pleasantly but not outrageously fantastic, The Centaur in the Garden is a very good book -- but one that feels like it could have been more. The author seems to have all the requisite talent, but here he doesn't show quite enough daring. Still, a good read.

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The Centaur in the Garden: Reviews: Moacyr Scliar: Other books by Moacyr Scliar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar (1937-2011) was also a physician.

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© 2007-2012 the complete review

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