Book Review: Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar

I heard about this short novel as it was mentioned briefly in something I was reading about Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a novel I greatly adore and teach almost every year. When I read the synopsis—a young man who grew up in Nazi Berlin under the gaze of a stuffed Bengal tiger, then finds himself shipwrecked with a jaguar (maybe)—I realized it couldn’t be an accident that Martel drew from the novel. Indeed, on the front cover is a quote from Martel: “I am indebted to Mr. Moacyr Scliar, for the spark of life.”

The novel no doubt sparked some ideas for Martel’s work, and at 99 pages in rather large print, it read quickly (in one sitting for me, which says a lot when I have a four and (almost) two year old at home with me this summer). If someone like Thomas Hardy wrote this book, it would be about 500 pages long, so a lot of plot was compressed into a small space. But it worked. I think Kafka would have enjoyed it.

It’s an odd mix of reality and the absurd. It’s told from a third person perspective. Though we are limited to Max’s perspective on the world, we are never put deeply in it. It reminds me in some ways of the way the story “Gimpel the Fool” (Isaac Bashevis Singer) was told—a straight-forward account of a bizarre situation. It also reminded me of the short story “The Gospel According to Mark” (Jorge Luis Borges) in the way Max becomes an outsider everywhere he lives and is unable to integrate. In all cases, the distanced perspective helps make the absurdity of the situation work. I can’t imagine The Stranger being told in detailed, painstaking sentences as Meursault justifies his behavior.

The novel is for adults—there are some sexual situations (none explicit, though the language is blunt), as well as some anti-Semitism/references to Nazis. It’s an interesting study in how we react to our environment and how the long-term consequences of hatred tend to follow us. And I think that, rather than a characterization of a specific individual, is the purpose of the book.

For me, I read it through the lens of Life of Pi, and I enjoyed things like Max’s uncertainty about whether there really a jaguar on the lifeboat with him, the look at what motivates a person and how people raised in the same area can have differing beliefs.

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