Leopards in the Temple
break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial
pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can e
calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.
–Franz Kafka (1883-1924), (transl. Clement Greenberg), from Parables and Paradoxes, 1946
Perhaps the leopards symbolized something. A leopard is a wild beast. Capitalists are ferocious in their greed for profit and their exploitation of the proletariat. Killing a leopard in a zoo might be a way of demonstrating to the capitalists that their days were numbered. But, reasoned Mousy, workers are also ferocious when demanding their rights or going on strike. How to differentiate the ferocity of one class form that of the other? How to tell progressive ferocity from its reactionary counterpart? Could the answer be to leave an explanatory message at the side of the executed leopard, explaining that the animal had been sacrificed to serve as an example to those in power?
After reading Moacyr Scliar’s work, Kafka’s Leopards, I have encounter yet another work that riffs off the work of someone else. Although this isn’t a new concept, the result of doing so does present challenges because it inherently measures the text against the original text. In this instance, Scliar chose to base his work off of a 28 word aphorism written by Kafka, The Leopard in the Temple, and does write an entertaining novel. Part fiction and part fact (aka. critifictional), Kafka’s Leopards is an amalgam of literary and mystery sensibilities. In addition, Scliar addresses British and European literature, Jewish Writing, and the question of a reader’s interpretation as his primary themes.
The novel centers around the life of Benjamin “Mousy” Kantarovitch. Described as a mouse, “Not on of those happy mice that you find in children’s books–no, one the contrary, a melancholy, solitary mouse, perpetually ensconced in his hole,” Mousy is a young man who is taken by the idea of rebellion. Living in a small community of Chernovitsky, he wants very much to make a difference in the world as opposed to following his father’s footsteps as a tailor. Mousy becomes enamored with Communism and The Communist Manifesto. He idolizes his friend, Yossi, who claims to have met Trotsky. Trotsky gave a mission to Yossi in order to prove his loyalty to the Party. When Yossi falls deathly ill, he asks Mousy to carry out his task. Leaving home for the first time, Mousy ends up in Prague to meet secure a message from a Jewish writer which will be the clue to the rest of his mission. Mousy is not a lucky man. He loses his satchel on the train which contained his contact all the other mission’s information. Once in Prague, he tries to remember the all the information but can only come up with bits and pieces of his information.
This leads Mousy to attempt to figure out on his own who the writer is and what the message would be. Along the way, he makes deductions and assumptions based on his interpretation of signs and what information he does remember. He finds the real Kafka, not aware of who he is, and Kafka gives him the 28 word aphorism. Through jewelry stores, synagogues and churches, Mousy still cannot come up with the message he was supposed to receive. He returns home defeated and becomes a tailor.
Later in his life, he develops a close relationship with his grand-nephew, Jaime, who discusses Communism with him. Jaime becomes involved in a revolution himself and gets arrested. The faded yellow aphorism was in his pocket. Mousy is the only person that can prove his innocence to get him released. So, from beginning to end, Mousy is a Communist without really succeeding at it.
His journey to Prague occupies the majority of the novel and within these pages are the ruminations and rationalizations of Mousy’s decisions. It seems a bit heavy handed with the exploration of the reader’s interpretation as a theme. This slows the pace down but without adding more tension. Mousy’s attempts at consistently comparing the tenets of Communism to Kafka’s aphorism is comical even if it does linger too long. Interestingly enough, Mousy gains courage and strength from Communism, but his misinterpretations only lead to discouragement and failure.
Encompassing so much in a thin novel, barely one hundred pages, is a valiant effort and a nice addition to this series, The Americas. Scliar succeeds in this as well as ascribing deeper meaning to the tale of the bumbling Mousy. A fun read that masks the seriousness of his intentions. It’s enjoyable even if one doesn’t understand the subtext, but it sure helps.