Kafka's Leopards
Moacyr Scliar
Thomas O. Beebee, Translator

(Texas Tech University Press)
Benjamin Kantarovitch is a Communist, and a bumbler. In fact, he's more of a bumbler than a Communist. They call him Mousy (he looks like a "house-mouse"), and he lives in the village of Chernovitsky, not far from Odessa. His cell-leader is named Yossi. Yossi had met with Trotsky in Paris shortly before and became a convert.

The party is sending Yossi to Prague, but he takes ill. He elects Mousy to go in his stead, where he will call another party member and repeat the words, "They sent me to receive the text." Then he will execute the grand plan ... possibly involving sabotage.

Mousy has never been out of Chernovitsky in his life. But Yossi is his comrade, so he dutifully goes to Prague. Being Mousy, he loses his satchel with all the instructions, the secret code, and the plans. So he asks the clerk at the Terminus Hotel for the name of a man who was described by Yossi as "a Jew like us ... a writer."

The hotel clerk says that he's only heard of two writers in Prague: "One is Max Brod, a very nice guy. The other one is Franz Kafka. Sort of an oddball ..." Mousy dutifully calls Kafka (he has to be shown how to use a telephone) and tells Kafka to send him "The Message." Which Kafka dutifully does:

    Leopards break into the temple
    and drink up the offering in the chalices.
    This happens again and again.
    Finally, one can predict their action in advance
    and it becomes part of the ceremony.

§   §   §

Scliar (and his translator) have a job here. They have to make Mousy naïve but not stupid. We have to believe in him and at the same time not think he is a complete dolt. Scliar more or less brings it off, so that when Mousy finally gets together with Kafka, neither can figure out what is what right away. When they meet, "Kafka --- who, after all, dealt with injured workers and therefore must have been somewhat used to difficult situations --- decided to help with a question: 'So, what did you think of the text?'"

    "The text? The text is marvelous ... 'Leopards in the Temple.' Marvelous ... 'Leopards break into the temple...' No doubt about it, marvelous."

    "And will it do for you?..."

    Mousy didn't understand the question, but he also did not want to reveal his cluelessness. "Do for me? Sure, it will do for me. The problem is..."

He complains about the obscurity, and Kafka gets lost in his own thoughts. "Obscurity," he said at last. "Some think it's the problem. For me it's the solution."

And for me. I wish that Scliar had drawn this excellent conceit out for a dozen or more pages. I know, it's a short book (96 pages) and we have to get on with it ... to where all is made clear and Mousy is kicked out. There is mention of Freud, and I caught myself thinking that if Scliar had been willing we might have gotten him into the game as well. But, alas, Mousy is sent away, Yossi dies, and the tailor (and his family) end up in Brazil.

Still, it could have gone on some, this meeting between a befuddled revolutionary and the master of obscure tales about bugs and a machine capable of tattooing a man's sins all over his body. And the master shrink, too.

But no. Kafka coughs. Mousy knows right away its TB, and that it's fatal. Kafka concludes, "Sorry. A little while ago this cough sprang up. It's psychological you know." He gave a melancholy smile: "Maybe I should be treated by Dr. Freud." Then he shows our mouse to the door.

--- Richard Saturday
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