The death of Brazilian fabulist Moacyr Scliar, at the age of 73, on February 27, in his native Porto Alegre, represents the loss of Latin America’s most popular Jewish writer of his generation, and the most influential.
Scliar engaged a large audience, at home and abroad, reflecting on crucial issues that define modernity: the place of minorities in society, the tensions between education and ignorance, and between faith and secularism.
His 1980 classic, “The Centaur in the Garden,” remains a fixture in Brazil’s school curriculum. A fantasy tale about a Jewish centaur who struggles to accept his physical features in a society prone to conformism, the novel allowed Scliar to reflect on segregation as a feature of Jewish history. Yet in his eyes, history wasn’t something to be too serious about. Instead, he saw it as a drawing board on which to re-create, to reconfigure, to rewrite.
Dismissed by critics as “parochial” in his debut, Scliar and his career epitomize a journey from the outskirts of the literary environment to its center. In 2003, when Scliar, a dear friend and traveling companion, was made a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, he sent me an elated e-mail. “No longer a pariah!” he wrote.
A child of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, he was born in 1937 and trained as a physician, a profession to which he devoted the prime years of his life. His first book, published in 1962, was about his formative years as a doctor.
The body, in particular the Jewish body, was his perennial interest. His numerous stories, collected in English in a single volume in 1999, feature characters who undergo a variety of mutations (deformations, transformations, reconfigurations) and, consequently, must find a way to cope. They emerge triumphant only when they find meaning in their monstrosity.
Scliar was astonishingly prolific: He released 13 collections of stories, 21 novels (in Portuguese, they are called romances), more than two-dozen books for children and young adults and four book-length essays. Several of his stories were adapted into films.
Scliar’s oeuvre drew upon significant breakthroughs in Jewish scholarship during the late 20th century. After researching the impact of the conversos in colonial Brazil, he published the novel “The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes” (1983). The idea, expounded by Harold Bloom, that a woman in King David’s court might have written portions of the Bible, inspired him to explore its possibilities through fiction in “A mulher que escreveu a Bíblia” (1999), not yet translated into English.
He also addressed the broader Brazilian experience, building through fiction a mosaic that encompasses every aspect of his country’s social fabric. Paganism is at the heart of “The Gods of Rachel” (1975). And he fictionalized the life of a Brazilian physician and activist who gave up his cosmopolitan life to join an Indian tribe in the jungle in “A majestade do Xingu” (1997), also untranslated.
Scliar always said to me that four writers defined his outlook: Sholem Aleichem, from whom he learned to write about Jewish types with affection, without condescension, in language that was plain yet rich in biblical and talmudic references; Franz Kafka and Isaac Babel, the first reviving Hasidic storytelling through allegory, the second depicting the marginal Jewish types of his age; and, closer to his own condition, Clarice Lispector, the acclaimed Brazilian novelist whose conflicted Jewish identity influenced Scliar to be more open about his own.
Behind Scliar’s deceptively plain style lurks an irrepressible storyteller who believed in the redemptive qualities of literature. “To read,” he would tell me, “is to leave the self and become global. And not only global but trans-historical.” This admirable capacity to be simultaneously insider and outsider emerged from his Jewish identity. In Brazil, a multiracial nation in which minorities aren’t perceived as a threat (anti-Semitism there is relatively mild compared to other countries in Latin America), Scliar, through his literary work and his newspaper columns in the daily Folha de São Paulo, was a spokesman for difference.
In 2002, Scliar found himself at the heart of an international controversy when Yann Martel, the Canadian author of the Booker Prize-winning “Life of Pi,” confessed to having borrowed — others would say plagiarized — the premise of Scliar’s 1981 novel “Max and the Cats.” I was with Scliar a few weeks later when he was coping with an onslaught of queries from journalists. I’m still impressed by how admirably gracious he was. Scliar said he was flattered by Martel’s debt because literature is about echoes: No reader impressed by a book lets it slip from his memory. The lingering effects of it are what matters.
Scliar’s lasting contribution is to be found in his soft, intellectually minded humor. It emerged from the crossroad where Jewish and Brazilian cultures interact: an irreverent humor that serves as a way to respond to the always-looming apocalypse. That humor enabled him to laugh at history — or better, with history.
Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the editor, most recently, of “The FSG Book of 20th-Century Latin American Poetry” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), due out in April.