Kafka’s Leopards

Written by Moacyr Scliar Thomas O. Beebee (trans.)
Review by Ilysa Magnus

1916: In a shtetl in Bessarabia, Czarist Russia, lives Benjamin Kantarovich, 19, nicknamed “Mousy,” whose sick friend, Yossi, asks him to undertake a secret revolutionary mission in Prague. Although Mousy has never been outside of his small town, he goes to Prague, losing the satchel containing the mission instructions. Frantically trying to piece together the key to the mission, Mousy decides that “the text” that he is seeking comes from the pen of Franz Kafka – one of his aphorisms that Mousy interprets as a call to arms. Failing miserably as a revolutionary, Mousy returns to his home and emigrates with his family to Brazil.

1964: The right-wing repressive regime seeks out possible left-wing revolutionaries. To help Jaime, his grand-nephew and the only person he loves, to leave his home and go underground in Sao Paolo, Mousy gives Jaime the old parable, hand-written by Kafka and signed by him, a piece of paper now worth many thousands of dollars. Jaime is discovered with the writing, which the police immediately believe to be a coded revolutionary message.

Scliar, a Brazilian Jew and physician who died earlier this year, wrote extensively on many issues, his works translated into many languages. The Leopards in the Temple parable, which forms the very underpinning of this novella, is classic Kafka – and the ultimate meaning, if there can be one in the world of critical interpretation, is perhaps just as convoluted and subjective. What Scliar does in this brief work, though, is to make us ponder, to force us to see connections between events and people, to begin to wonder at the power of the word. Thought-provoking and engrossing, this is not an easy work albeit simple on the surface.