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Let’s honor Brazilian great Moacyr Scliar by reading his books

February 28, 2011

Moacyr Scliar

Considering the corrosive critical reaction Yann Martel received for his most recent novel, last year’s Beatrice and Virgil, it may turn out that his most lasting contribution to literature will lie in accidentally alerting English-language readers to the existence of Moacyr Scliar, who died yesterday at the age of 73.

Scliar would probably be even less well-known to American readers if Martel had not appropriated the central conceit for his Man Booker Prize-winning 2002 novel, The Life of Pi, from one of the Brazilian author’s most famous books, Max and the Cats (1981). As almost everyone knows, Martel’s book features a boy sharing a life raft with a tiger. In Scliar’s earlier novel, a boy shares a life raft with a jaguar.

Ah, such is the plight of foreign-language authors, no matter how prestigious in their homelands, when their work enters the unforgiving and disinterested cultural orbit of North America.

I don’t want this to turn into a cheap shot at Martel — well, okay, yes I do, but I’m groping around for my sense of fair play while trying to resist the urge. For one thing many readers whose taste and judgment I respect love Life of Pi. For another, Martel always credited Scliar’s book with providing the germ for his own.

But some things about Martel’s story don’t add up. He said he never read Max and the Cats but learned about it from a “lukewarm” John Updike review in The New York Times. Problem is, Updike never reviewed Scliar’s book, and the only review that did appear in the Times, by Herbert Mitgang, was a rave.

Scliar reportedly considered suing Martel for plagiarism, saying, “To be influenced by other writers is very common, mainly when someone begins writing and has not developed his own style yet. But to copy is something very different. It is plagiarism.” He was apparently mollified by a conversation with Martel and did not pursue legal action.

His countrymen were less satisfied, outraged that yet again the work of a Brazilian artist had been lifted by an English-language imitator. But as Dennis Loy Johnson writes in this excellent analysis of the affair at Moby Lives, “it can be a fine line between ‘plundering’ a culture and paying it homage.”

Enough about that — who was Moacyr Scliar and why should we seek out his books? Born in 1937 in Porto Alegre, he is the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He went to medical school and practiced as a doctor until retiring in 1987. He later said he believed his work as a physician gave him special insight into the human condition.

Scliar was prolific, writing more than 70 books, including children’s stories, fables, essays and young-adult novels. He’s equally acclaimed as both a short-story writer and a novelist. Unlike that other great Jewish-Brazilian modernist, Clarice Lispector, he embraced Jewish themes in his work.

In this interview, Scliar discusses his dual Brazilian and Jewish identities, how he was influenced by Holocaust survivors who settled in Brazil (including his wife’s parents), and how the period of military dictatorship reminded many Brazilians of Nazi Germany. He also touches on his divided nature when he names his favorite writers:  Isaac Babel, Franz Kafka and the great Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis.

Scliar’s 1980 novel, The Centaur in the Garden was named one of the 100 best Jewish works of the 20th century by the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, and he is without doubt one of the great Latin American voices of the Jewish diaspora.

Several of Scliar’s books have been translated into English, including Max and the Cats, The Centaur in the Garden, and The Collected Stories of Moacyr Scliar (1999), which won the National Jewish Book Award.

Any of these would make a good starting point for the curious reader new to his work.


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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean Piccoli permalink
    February 28, 2011 4:39 pm

    What a full life he must have led – physician and novelist. And unlike Walker Percy, Scliar got to practice medicine. I’d not even heard of him until now. ‘Max and the Cats’ sounds like a good place to start. Thanks for the knowledge.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 28, 2011 6:03 pm

      Yes, well, it goes in the so many books, so little time box, doesn’t it? I’m thinking of blowing up my TV and reading every waking moment.

  2. February 28, 2011 9:54 pm

    Okay, Chauncey, The Centaur in the Garden, and The Collected Stories of Moacyr Scliar is on my impossibly long list. You’ve never steered me wrong yet, so I’m expecting Scliar will be another blow-me-away similar to Mantel. BTW, 2 of your recent blogs will be published by Contemporary World Literature on the 7th. Hope you get some more hits from it. Two more will be in the April issue of Serving House Journal. Lots of admiration out here for what you’re doing. Hope you don’t burn out!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 1, 2011 1:07 am

      I’m flattered, as always, Duff. Did you tell me which ones? If so, I can’t remember.

  3. March 1, 2011 1:35 pm

    The one on Nabokov and the one about Walcott & Ozick. I’ll send you the link as soon as the issue comes out. They love you at Contemporary World Lit, so I’ll be sending them more of the entries as each deadline approaches. Can’t thank you enough for your generosity.

  4. March 6, 2011 2:42 pm

    I agree completely. Scliar’s work definitely should be read, and if the controversy with Martell gives us recognition of Scliar, it’s worth it.

    In passing: I always thought the first part of Martell’s book was far better than the tiger part. At the time I didn’t know about Scliar. Or his book. I thought the coming of age part was authentic; I thought the lifeboat part was contrived, that what was really two stories had been compressed into one .

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