A Jewish Brazilian literary giant, his centaur, and me

A Jewish Brazilian literary giant, his centaur, and me

The first time I opened the pages of Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden, I was already skeptical about both life and literature. I had become immune to magic realism, tired of obvious multicultural lessons that burdened rather than enriched stories, and just plain sick of the representation of “otherness” as an optical problem: merely the way others saw us, with redemption always possible when we looked inside and saw we were exactly the same.

But what if we weren’t the same? And what if we found our Zen precisely in what made us different?

Those are some of the central questions in Scliar’s wonderful novel, The Centaur in the Garden. The story takes place in provincial Brazil, on a farming colony established by a Jewish philanthropist. That part isn’t fiction: at least two different European barons tried to relocate Jews persecuted in the Old World to the new one, in the hope of creating a Zion in the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Scliar’s tale, one of those newly arrived families is further dislocated when their youngest son, Guedali, is born a centaur. Scliar doesn’t explain why – it doesn’t matter why – the boy is a centaur, and this must be grappled with. And not just any centaur, but a Jewish one. (Yes, he must be circumcised; he must bar mitzvah-ed.)

Scliar has a deceptively light touch, but Guedali’s centaurness isn’t even vaguely magical; it’s as disturbing and impractical, as dirty and infuriating as being half-human and half-horse might be. It’s a miserably lonely existence because, even to his family, Guedali is a monster. And monsters – however bright, however sweet and gentle — must be kept from view. Scliar never pretends it’s otherwise.Eventually, of course, Guedali goes on the inevitable search for his place in the world. It’s not with his family; it’s not with the traveling circus he joins for a while; it’s not in the marriage to the improbable girl centaur he marries, whose non-Jewishness brings with it other cultural struggles.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Guedali’s most freakish moment comes when he and the wife decide to have their bodies reshaped as average humans, to cut off their front legs and hide their back hoofs in custom-made boots, and pass. And pass they do: they achieve middle-class status, have normative children. All the while, no one’s the wiser about their true selves … except Guedali and his wife, who live not just with the secret of their other life, but with the knowledge that comes with that secret.

What I love most about this book is its embrace of discomfort – there’s no place, really, for Guedali to be happy as his real self – and its ambivalence about compromise. And yet there is something genial, something hopeful in its pages. Rarely has a book spoken so knowingly and beautifully, so forgivingly, to me.

Not long ago, I met Scliar briefly when he came to Chicago to engage in a public conversation with our mutual friend, Ilan Stavans, the literary critic who’d also published and promoted his work in the U.S. I could barely speak, I was so thrilled. Probably his country’s best-known cointemporary writer, on State Street the unassuming, slight and gentlemanly Scliar might have been confused with someone’s uncle, the doorman at the Palmer House, a country doctor (he was, in fact, a public health doctor).

But he was a literary giant. He wrote more than 70 books, many of them classics in Jewish and Brazilian literature. Unfortunately, he was not as well-read in the English-language world as he should have been, though he traveled here and occasionally served as a visiting scholar at elite schools. Here, still more unfortunately, he was best known because of a sad and unkind affair: when Booker Prize winner Yann Martel ripped him off to write The Life of Pi, a take on Scliar’s darker and more meaningful allegory, Max and the Cats; even Martel clumsily acknowledged the debt. The idea of a boy and a man-eating feline trapped on a boat was too terribly beautiful to have come from anyone but Scliar. In my world, though, his greatest legacy will always be Guedali, that marvelously real centaur, sometimes anguished, briefly content, and always melancholy.

I’m not alone in my admiration. A few years ago, The Centaur in the Garden was recognized as one of the great Jewish novels of the 20th century by The National Yiddish Book Center, and in Brazil, it’s considered a pillar of the national literary canon.

It so saddens me to write this: Moacyr Scliar has died, too young at 73, in his native Porto Alegre.