August 2003

The Centaur in the Garden by Moacyr Scliar

Like his centaur protagonist Guedali Tartakovsky, Moacyr Scliar was born and raised in Porto Alegre, the capital city of Rio Grande Do Sul which Scliar locates in “the deep south” of Brazil. Porto Alegre is still home to the sixty-six-year-old Scliar, who also works as a public health physician.

Scliar was inspired to write fiction as a young man after hearing his parents’ stories about life in Bessarabia, a region of Eastern Europe that is currently contained within Moldavia and Ukraine. In a recent e-mail exchange, Scliar noted that although he is not traditionally religious, he is “very connected to Jewish tradition – to the stories, mainly. We are a people of story-tellers, and I got that from my parents.” Scliar’s mother was his first mentor. A teacher in a Yiddish school, she introduced her son to literature and “applauded my first attempts to write.”

In The Centaur in the Garden, Scliar uses the metaphor of the centaur to evoke the dual existence of Brazilian Jewry. It’s an image that is also influenced by Latin American culture. “The gaucho,” Scliar explains, “is called the centaur of the pampas. Since cattle is raised in Rio Grande do Sul, the horse is present everywhere. On the other hand, the centaur is a symbol of the double identity, characteristic of Jews in a country like Brazil. At home, you speak Yiddish, eat gefilte fish, and celebrate Shabbat. But in the streets, you have soccer, samba, and Portuguese. After a while you feel like a centaur.”

Scliar also sees Latin America as a metaphor for the Promised Land. He notes that many Jews considered places like Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay as “a kind of Promised Land where they could survive and still keep their Jewish traditions. Rio Grande do Sul was one of those places. Jews were so well received that they became what Alberto Guerchunoff, in Argentina, called “Los gauchos Judíos: Jews who wore the typical clothes of the region, sipped mate, and quickly became part of the human landscape.”

Scliar recently came back to international attention after Yann Martel won this year’s Booker Prize for his novel The Life of Pi.  In Martel’s introduction to the book, he thanks Scliar for providing “the spark of life” that generated his own novel. The spark comes from Scliar’s short symbolic novel Max and the Cats. Some critics questioned whether Martel had actually plagiarized Scliar’s book, but Scliar is reticent on the subject and notes that Martel “told the press that he read a review of my book by John Updike (but Updike never wrote such a review). He liked the plot and decided to write a story about the subject. But my story refers to Nazism and also, in a metaphorical way, to the military dictatorship we had in Brazil at the time. Martel’s book is about religious faith.”

Moacyr Scliar is eloquent about his dual existence as a writer and physician, a venerable combination in Jewish tradition that goes back to Maimonides. He sees profound connections between both his vocations and notes that “medicine has inspired my work. It is a way to know the human condition and, in the case of public health, the social reality as well.”