By Moacyr Scliar
Although Moacyr Scliar is a distinguished Brazilian author, his compact novella is perhaps more famous as being the inspiration for Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning, Life of Pi. Since I haven’t read Martel’s book, and Scliar’s being quite a bit slimmer, I figured this would be a quick, light read. I had the original impression that Max & The Cats was a story for young adults, with the magic realist premise of a boy adrift at sea with a wild jaguar.
It’s actually an allegorical tale for grown-ups (there is adultery and violence) which spans the life of Max: from his boyhood in Berlin in the 1920’s to his death in Brazil in 1977. Max grows up working at his father’s fur shop, The Bengal Tiger, named after the prominently displayed stuffed tiger that Max's father had shot in India. Although fearful of the watchful gaze of this immobilized animal, Max is afraid of his father even more. During this period, Germany is in the grip of political instability, but Max is too caught up in his own life as a university student and his ongoing affair with a married woman to really pay attention. He even ingratiates himself to Professor Kunz, famous for his research on animal psychology, but who eventually starts experimenting on gypsies! Professor Kunz’s work also involves studying the behaviour of cats in situations involving conflict: He would place the animals in huge labyrinths, where they are subjected to constant dilemmas, such as choosing between two paths – one leading to a saucer with milk, the other to a fierce bulldog. (yep, foreshadowing)
Eventually Max incurs the wrath of a high-ranking Nazi officer and is forced to flee Germany. He finds passage to Brazil on a ship full of animals, unaware that the shady captain plans to sink the ship and flee with the insurance. This is where we find Max held captive in a little dinghy with a menacing jaguar, adrift in the middle of the ocean. Another uneasy relationship with a feline develops, as Max tries to appease the big cat with fish that he has caught. The jaguar inadvertently saves his life by striking at a shark that was attempting to make a meal out of the both of them. This is probably the most adventurous part of the tale.
Max miraculously makes it over to Brazil and starts a new life as a farmer. As a German he faces some difficulties when Brazil declares war on Germany in 1942, but on the whole manages reasonably well. After the war he visits his homeland, but finds nothing there he can really return to. Back in Brazil, a newly arrived German neighbour builds a palacial mansion overlooking his modest farm, and Max recognizes him as the former Nazi officer. This third variation of the feline-theme is a different yet equally threatening one, but Max confronts this one head-on, without a few consequences.
The story is structured into 3 distinct phases, each representing a different aspect of Max’s – I don’t know how else to say it – psychic development, which is represented by his attitude and relationship with his various “cat encounters”. The first phase of his life is based around fear, the second is one of resignation and/or complacency and the final phase is one of self-actualization. If you’re thinking this sounds a little on the Freudian side, well, it is! Later in the story, a doctor living in Brazil tells Max that he likes to share his story to the indigenous people about a craftsman named Ego, his nemesis named Id and an authoritarian figure named Super Ego. You get the drift.
Max & The Cats has been called everything from brilliant, to appealing yet unfulfilling. I would side with the latter. The tone of the narrative is rather allegorical, and it was told in a detached and removed style, so there wasn’t much in the way of substance for me (not much to identify with). I think that the novel would have hit the mark better if it was aimed at young adults as the ideas were interesting, but the symbolism was a little too trite and obvious for my liking. So really, more unfulfilling than appealing, overall!