PERHAPS more a Zeitgeist than a movement, Jewish consciousness seems to be emerging as a force in Latin American fiction. Writers such as Mario Szichman in Argentina; Isaac Goldenberg in Peru (author of The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner, and probably the best-known Latin American writer dealing with Jewish themes); the dramatist Isaac Chocr,on in Venezuela; and Mexico's Margo Glantz and Sabina Berman -- all are actively exploring the rich heritage and special substance and textures that make up Jewish life.
In Brazil, we have Moacyr Scliar, a practicing public health physician, who has published 10 novels and seven short story collections, which have won numerous literary awards. But he is all but unknown in this country. The publication of the award-winning The Centaur in the Garden is something of an event: It is Scliar's first book to see print in English and should give him the recognition and larger audience he deserves. Ballantine's Bob Wyatt is launching his new line, Available Press, with this book. It is an auspicious beginning. He has two more of Scliar's books in production -- One-Man Army, a novel, and The Carnival of the Animals, a short story collection.
It is difficult even for a seasoned reader of fantasy to suspend his disbelief when confronted with a story about a centaur born to Russian immigrants and brought up as a Jew -- who is circumcised and bar mitzvahed -- with devastating and hilarious consequences. But the first-person narration of Guedali the Centaur's coming-of-age and maturity is so down to earth and engaging and universal that the reader must believe in him. That is one of the beauties of Scliar's writing.
Guedali is -- perhaps as all Jews are -- our symbols and metaphors made real. Albert Goldman has said that "Jewishness itself has become a metaphor for modern life. The individual Jew -- the alien in search of identity -- has become a symbolic protagonist." Scliar himself has said: "The Judaic condition? You never free yourself from it. It begins by being stamped on your flesh: the mark of circumcision. We're different. Neither better nor worse: different. Many times in my life I have cursed the fate which made me a Jew." He goes on to say that "As much as possible, I live in peace with my Jewishness."
And so Guedali the Centaur becomes the personification of alienation: the Jew, the outsider. Desperately lonely and frustrated, he runs away from his family's protection to seek his own destiny. After a series of adventures in a circus and on the run, he finds safety, falls in love, has an operation that turns him into a man, and settles down in the city to a life of style and money and minor infidelities. Only then does he confront himself, and he makes the most dangerous journey -- as we all must -- to find his own meaning.
SCLIAR's technique, like that of I. B. Singer, is to integrate the magical and the fantastical into the real world. As he, Scliar, has said, "Fantastic fiction must serve reality." It is the technique of magical realism. Fantasy becomes a tool which exposes our selves and society, and the thrust and direction are always toward such realistic exploration. Writers as diverse as Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garc,ia M,arquez, Murilo Rubiao, and, of course, Moacyr Scliar use "realismo magico" to explore the numinous mystery that pervades reality. But for Scliar the mystery and the reality are the Judaic condition. It infuses his work with humor, fantasy, authenticity and ethical substance.
The Centaur in the Garden is a brilliant debut. It is a comedic novel, a regionalist novel, a bawdy erotic novel, a realistic novel of bourgeois alienation, a metaphorical novel, a fantastical phantasmagorical novel -- a weaving of the common and the mythic, a mating of contrasts and opposites. It is a simply-told story that turns itself into an ontological loop, that questions reality and makes fun of itself.
But most of all, it is a Jewish novel.