Facing One's Inner Felines
- Moacyr Scliar (Author) and Eloah Giacomelli (Translator)
Max & the Cats. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Linda M. Morra
Although Max and the Cats initially attracted controversial attention when some critics believed Yann Martel had used the book as far more than a source of inspiration for the Booker Award-winning Life of Pi, Moacyr Scliar’s book need not be overshadowed by Martel’s novel: it may be regarded as outstanding on its own terms. Max and the Cats traces the political, emotional and psychological development of its protagonist, Max Schmidt. In the first of the book’s three sections, “The Tiger of the Wardrobe,” Scliar demonstrates how Max develops an apparently pathological fear of felines, which is engendered by a stuffed Bengal tiger in his father’s furrier store. Fascinated at first by the exotic furs that occupy the store, he becomes particularly terrified of the stuffed tiger whose “eyes glint[ed] with a fierce brightness.” The day his father obliges him to go to the store on his own, and Max must confront the stuffed animal on his own for the first time, he crosses a political demonstration which turns violent: the association between violent politics and felines is thus established and maintained throughout the narrative.
In the book’s second part, “The Jaguar in the Dinghy,” Max finds himself obliged to flee Germany after his lover’s husband betrays him to the Nazis, who are pursuing him. The ship upon which he embarks in his attempts to escape, however, sinks in the middle of the ocean, and he finds himself (or imagines himself) adrift in a dinghy with a jaguar. He is later rescued and brought to Brazil where, as explored in the third section, “The Onca on the Hilltop,” he tries not altogether successfully to begin a new life. He marries an Indian woman, Jaci, has a daughter, Hildegarde, and sets up a relatively lucrative farm.
The jaguar is patently to be associated with all that threatens Max—including his own “inner demons”—and is conflated with the Nazi presence throughout the book: such references as those to Nazis “already showing their claws” and to Max’s neighbour, George Backhaus (whom Max believes to be a Nazi finding refuge in Brazil), as a “beast” who needs to be lured “away from his lair” underscore this association. Until the book’s final and ultimate encounter, after which time Max is finally “at peace with his felines” and even devotes “himself to raising pedigree cats,” he flees from rather than deals with that which threatens his political, psychological and physical well-being. Since Scliar infuses fantastical elements in everyday events, as is typical of magic realist writing, it is difficult to determine whether Max’s sightings of the jaguar or his belief in Backhaus as a Nazi in hiding are credible. Whether these threats are real or imagined, however, are of lesser importance to the necessity of Max’s confrontation with and triumph over what he most fears.
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MLA: Morra, Linda M. Facing One's Inner Felines. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 166 - 167)
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