Thursday, February 28, 2013

Moacyr Scliar -- Life to the Max

     I wondered why the late Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar impressed me beyond his fine books, and found myself remembering an experience while reporting in the Gulf region country of Oman. In answer to my insistent questions about the rebellious Dhofar territory, a government helicopter flew me to the remote mountains.  I saw a crowd near the landing pad and figured they were waiting for me.  It turned out that families had rushed to the place at the sound of the chopper, hoping its passenger was a doctor.  They had no idea what a newspaper was.  I never felt so useless in my life.

   Physician and author Moacyr Scliar died two years ago today, on Feb. 27, 2011.  I didn't meet him in life but know he was a good person because I have read his fables laced through with love of mankind and awareness of how debased men and women can be, I have met his friends and his widow and talked of his much-missed presence with ordinary residents -- approached at random -- of the southern gaucho city of Porto Alegre.  It seems Scliar was a useful man, a public health doctor whose passing was commemorated in obituaries not only in the New York Times but also in specialty journals of a variety of medical fields.  The poet Gary Snyder, who is also a carpenter, says every writer should have a job, which I take to mean a productive skill visible and even helpful to fellow human beings, including those who can't or do not read.  A way of keeping one's feet on the ground.  As he physically healed patients, Moacyr Scliar wrote over a hundred books.


This story appeared last week on New America Media.

The Life of Max  -- Thoughts On Pi’s Brazilian Creator

By Mary Jo McConahay
“What’s it about?” I asked.
A friend had recommended I read The Life of Pi. Never a spoiler, she described the plot in broad strokes.
“Wait a minute,” I said.  “I’ve read that.”
I hadn’t, but ever since I had read The War in Bom Fim, about a certain Brazilian neighborhood during the Second World War, I had devoured everything I could find by the Brazilian physician and author, Moacyr Scliar.  When I ran out of his books in English translations, I began The Centaur in the Garden in the original Portuguese, figuring it should not take me forever since I already knew the life story of the half-horse baby of Jewish heritage born in Brazil, the ultimate outsider novel.
“Not a tiger, it was a jaguar in the boat,” I said to my friend.
I was remembering Scliar’s Max and the Cats, where young Max must flee pre-war Berlin just ahead of Nazis who had been set upon him -- Max is Jewish -- by the husband of the older woman with whom the youth has been cavorting.  A shipwreck on the way to Brazil leaves Max in a dinghy with a jaguar escaped from the hold.  I never considered the jaguar a reflection of Max’s inner fears, as I read in one review, never a mirror of his attempts to control the terror that struck his heart with the presence of Nazis in this world.  I thought Max and the Cats was just a terrific yarn, the jaguar the most memorable of the felines Max encounters as he grows and changes like the best of literature’s protagonists. 
By 2011, when I was planning to visit Scliar in his home town of Porto Alegre, Brazil, I was aware that Pi’s author Yann Martel had fessed up, that he admitted he had taken his Pi from Max.  Taken his Pacific from the rough Atlantic. His circling sharks from Scliar’s circling sharks, his tiger from the jaguar. I only knew because my curiosity set me on an evening’s internet search.  With The Life of Pi, the Canadian author won the coveted Man Booker Prize, catapulting Martel to fame.  The film based on the book is up for an Oscar for Best Film. Well, I thought, you can’t copyright a title, can’t trademark an idea.
“It might have been good if he had communicated, at the beginning,”  the author’s widow would tell me later.  She said it softly, with bewilderment, but also resignation.
Martel ambiguously thanks Scliar in an author’s note for “the spark of life.” In an internet essay, he said he got the idea for Pi from an “indifferent” review of Max and the Cats by John Updike in the New York Times.  Updike never wrote a review of Max and the Cats, in the New York Times or anywhere else.  At any rate, it is difficult to believe a reader would be “indifferent” to Max, whose multi-layered story evokes a mix of emotions, where Pi might be characterized as a good one-note read.
On Jan. 27, 2011, I fell backward down a flight of concrete stairs (don’t ask), and was forced to cancel not only samba lessons but my ticket to Brazil.  Moacyr Scliar suffered a stroke and died from its complications on Feb. 27, age 73.  When I reached Porto Alegre in May, in gaucho country in southern Brazil, the weather was coming into winter in the southern hemisphere.  Wrapped in a scarf and hat, I traipsed the streets of Bon Fim that I felt I knew from that first (for me) book of Scliar’s, seeing again the characters scratched forever into a boy’s mind, feeling the  anxiety and humor that could come only from a mature writer in control of his pen.  Eerily, the local university was presenting the venerable neighborhood in a gallery exhibit, which Scliar had been curating before his stroke; it became a memorial to Porto Alegre’s most famous resident, his talk missed in local cafes, greetings missed on the streets. 
A member for life of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, one of forty living citizens sometimes called "the immortals" (admitted: 2003), in Porto Alegre Scliar was the story-teller and kind, always accessible public health doctor.  The only author of which I am aware whose obituary ran in both the New York Times and The Lancet.  Bom Fim. In Portuguese, it means good death.

On my last day in Porto Alegre, I bought a ticket on the next morning’s bus to Montevideo, and wrote an email expressing my regret over the death of her husband to Judith Scliar. She responded inviting me to come over, at that very moment. I jotted the address on a scrap of paper, ran to the street and flagged down a taxi.  After half a lifetime in Latin America, I do not believe in the term “magic realism;” the reality here is “stuff happens” at which eyebrows remain unraised. I stood outside the car and handed the address to the driver through his open window. “Do you know where this is?” I asked. “Yes, of course,” he said, driving off with the note in hand, leaving me standing.
Eventually I sat across the table from Moacyr Scliar’s widow at her house.  She is a beautiful woman who married young, clearly stayed in love for all the decades, and still seemed surprised by death.  I spotted a short, sweet note to “Judy” from her husband, inserted between books nearby.  It was all too fresh.  She cried. I cried, although I knew neither him nor her, wept at the sheer weight of her sadness.
“Come with us to the movies,” she said later.  We would go with Moacyr’s best friend, and her best friend, to the opening of “Midnight in Paris.”  
“You will see every Jew in Porto Alegre there,” she said.  “We are the only ones who really get Woody Allen.”
After the film we sat in a cafe talking over strong Brazilian coffee until the three friends fell in to a round of telling jokes, one more outrageous than the other, I knew it even though I didn’t get all the punch lines.  The previous day on Riachuelo Street, in a remarkably stuffed used bookstore -- upper floor tomes simply stacked as high as physics allowed, no shelves -- I had discovered a 20-year old volume co-edited by Dr. Scliar on Jewish humor.  Probably he didn’t have to go far for inspiration.

Judith Scliar, me, Renee, and Moacyr's best friend, Carlos

The last time I visited Porto Alegre, a year had passed.  The widow had little time for a visitor. Moacyr Scliar, not well known abroad, was at least a hero in his own land. A new annual literary prize carrying his name had been inaugurated, with a value of more than $75,000.  Judith Scliar was on her way to Rio de Janiero, to open a new school named after her husband.  She showed me the office where he used to write, desk cleared and otherwise streamlined because students and researchers were arriving.
In that room, Judith Scliar slowed down. She ran a finger along the desk.  I told her Pi had become a movie.She didn’t seem to hear.  
       “He had more books in him,” she said of her late husband.  “Maybe seven or eight more books.”