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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Kafka's Leopards

Moacyr Scliar

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To purchase Kafka's Leopards

Title: Kafka's Leopards
Author: Moacyr Scliar
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 101 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Kafka's Leopards - US
Kafka's Leopards - UK
Kafka's Leopards - Canada
Kafka's Leopards - India
I leopardi di Kafka - Italia
  • Portuguese title: Os leopardos de Kafka
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Thomas O. Beebee

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Our Assessment:

A- : thoughtful, clever, and amusing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Forward . 7/10/2011 Ilan Stavans
TLS . 18/5/2012 Miguel Fernandes Ceia

  From the Reviews:
  • "The delightful novella under review showcases Scliar’s talent at its peak. Originally published in 2000, it abounds in his favorite themes: human existence as a sequence of absurd, serendipitous events; bureaucrats’ total ignorance of the value of an aesthetic life; and laughter as a basic prerequisite for facing the apocalypse." - Ilan Stavans, Forward

  • "(A) playful novella, the purpose of which seems to be to pay homage to one of Scliar's heroes. (...) What stands out here is the variety of ways in which Scliar uses the figure of Kafka." - 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:

       One of Franz Kafka's 'aphorisms' plays a significant role in the lives of members from two generations of one family in Kafka's Leopards, a novella that, despite the political-historical background -- war, revolution, pogroms, and military crackdowns --, turns out to be surprisingly charming.
       The 'aphorism', or parable, is 'Leopards in the Temple', a mere twenty-eight words in the original, and thirty-three in Thomas Beebee's translation:

Leopards break into the temple and drink up the offering in the chalices; this happens again and again; finally, once can predict their action in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.
       While the novella begins with a Brazilian police report from the mid-1960s, the narrator immediately begins to explain how the Kafka-connection came about, telling the story of his grand-uncle Benjamin Kantarovich. Called 'Mousy' -- "not a codename; it really was his nickname" -- he grew up in a poor Jewish village in Bessarabia ("a region in constant dispute between Russia and Romania"). With World War I raging in Europe and Russia simmering in pre-Revolutionary fervor, rebellious young Mousy embraces Communism and dreams of being: "at Trotsky's side in the final battle".
       Of course, it's hard being much of a rebel in this tiny town -- but opportunity for action comes when friend and mentor Yossi makes contact with Trotsky and is entrusted with a special mission. Falling ill, Yossi hands off the mission to Mousy. Mousy has never been outside their small town, but now he has detailed instructions to head to Prague, meet with a Jewish writer who will give him a text, which Mousy must then decode using the key that he carries with him, which will reveal further instructions as to the actual target of his mission.
       Mousy sets out and manages quite well, but loses essential information along the way -- notably who his contact is, and the key to breaking the code. Not letting that stop him, he tries to find the Jewish writer on his own -- and finds Kafka instead. Kafka both seems to fit the bill, and offers him a text -- but, of course, the cryptic text Mousy receives from the master, the parable 'Leopards in the Temple', can't readily be decoded.
       Kafka's Leopards is a story of misinterpretations, layered here in such a way that one leads to yet another. Indeed, Mousy even finds leopards -- and love -- but, even with Kafka's input, his mission ends in abject failure, one that weighs on him and turns him into the "pitiable man" his grand-nephew remembers, who never started his own family and pottered along in his Brazilian exile as an increasingly less popular tailor (his "peculiar theories regarding clothing" -- such as maintaining that the left sleeve of a jacket should be shorter than the right -- driving away even loyal customers).
       What Mousy did carry with him, all those years, was the short text written and signed by Kafka -- a totem and, of course, valuable autograph. After the Brazilian coup of 1964 he finds use for it, giving it to his grand-nephew, the narrator's cousin, so that he could cash it in and live off the proceeds in São Paolo, to better escape the brutal crackdown.
       This, too, goes wrong, and the text is again misinterpreted, though Mousy is still able to use it to save his grand-nephew.
       The text, and its after-echoes, remain with Mousy his entire, fairly sad life, its truth -- if there is such a thing to it -- remaining elusive. But Scliar does allow Mousy a small, final triumph: only in his youth was Mousy a man of action, but on his deathbed, in a final delirium, he is finally able to take one last, redemptive stand -- a nice coda rounding off the story.
       Kafka's parable is one of adjusting to and accommodating intolerable circumstances, the leopards much like the forces that the villagers in Bessarabia in 1916 (and Russia after 1917) and Brazilians in 1965 were impotent against. For want of being able to oppose them or hold them at bay, these forces are allowed their way and integrated into daily life -- even when this is as incongruous as leopards in a temple are. Scliar offers no answer -- Mousy's last, small triumph is, after all, hardly more than an hallucination, dreamed wish-fulfillment ... -- but in his presentation suggests that opposition, of even the most futile sort, is worth clinging to.
       Kafka's Leopards is just the right length, Mousy's long life easily fitting into so few pages because these few moments -- 1916, 1965, his death in 1980 -- allow for a complete summing up. Scliar offers little cheer -- even the saved nephew is killed off in tragic fashion -- yet despite all Mousy's failures and the miscommunication that prevented him from achieving all the he might have it is a surprisingly satisfying work.
       A fine, thoughtful piece of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 October 2011

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Kafka's Leopards: 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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© 2011-2012 the complete review

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