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max e os felinos
22 November 2004
Max e os felinos (1981) by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar came to the attention of English-language readers after Canadian writer Yann Martel tapped one of its ideas as the premise for his Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi (2002). The idea was to place a character in close proximity to a large predatory cat – in a lifeboat – in the open ocean – after both character and cat are shipwrecked.
Martel acknowledged Scliar in the preface to Life of Pi, though he later claimed not to have read Max e os felinos, simply to have seen a review of it. The truth is hard to ferret out. Many of the things that happen to Pi happened to Max beforehand – a sudden shipwreck, a solitary lifeboat, a hungry cat, desperate attempts to catch enough fish to placate the carnivorous shipmate, and a gambit of bluffing attempts to "tame" the big cat.
On the other hand, Life of Pi is hardly plagiarism in any meaningful sense. In Martel's novel, the boat episode takes up the tiger's share of a substantial book. By contrast, the boat episode in Max is only about 25 pages out of 70 total. Max is a slim, stylized tale; Pi, a big, elaborate, nightmarish novel.
Scliar's dismay at the success of Life of Pi, in fact, may be due less to any true sense of having been intellectually ripped off than to the queasy sensation of having become a footnote to a bestseller, maybe even a masterpiece. Whenever someone mentions Max in future – possibly whenever someone in the English-speaking world mentions Moacyr Scliar – the only thing people are going to think about is "oh yeah, the life-of-Pi guy."
Max e os felinos (Max and the Cats) has its own quite distinct virtues, however, and it would be a shame for this little book to be folded into Pi in literary history.
Scliar's Max is the quintessential refugee who cannot really escape his native country. Born between the wars in Berlin, Max is the sensitive son of a successful but boorish furrier. Max's father taunts the boy with his various weaknesses – especially Max's fear of a great stuffed tiger that haunts the father's shop.
When an affair with the wife of a minor Nazi precipitates Max's flight from Germany, cats follow him – here, into the now-famous lifeboat. As Max hallucinates at sea, stricken by sun and hunger, he establishes a strange modus vivendi with a jaguar. But the jaguar disappears as soon as he's rescued.
Max reaches Brazil, but he's haunted by the past. He sees a Nazi in the town where he settles; he resolves to re-settle in the wilderness. Once he's there, another Nazi builds a house right next to his – and not just any Nazi, but the cuckold who caused Max's exile to begin with. (But the man insists that he is not Max's persecutor; is he any realer than the jaguar?)
Max e os felinos is a parable of ambivalent reference about ambiguous events. Most of all it seems to be about the way that the New World stands for a fresh starts – and cannot ever really provide it.
Max is a refugee from Nazism; his moral credentials would seem to be impeccable. Yet when he needs to sell his mother's jewels in order to survive in Brazil, he visits a Jewish trader. Sensing a swindle, Max lapses into shocking, instinctive antiSemitism:
Eu deveria saber . . . que não se poderia esperar outra coisa de um judeu.
[I should have known that you can't expect anything else from a Jew.]
In an extraordinary scene, the trader forces Max to take three times what he'd expected to get for the jewels. This money allows Max to build a house in the wilderness; the moment of his humiliation becomes the moment of his redemption. And in the wilderness Max stops running at last, and confronts his shape-shifting enemy.
Scliar, Moacyr. Max e os felinos. 1981. Rio Grande do Sul: L&PM Editores, 1982.