Writers & Company

'You have the right to several identities': Moacyr Scliar on his Brazilian-Jewish heritage

In this archive episode from 2004, Eleanor Wachtel speaks with the writer and physician about fantasy, identity and being Jewish in Brazil.
Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novel Max and the Cats inspired Yann Martel's Booker Prize–winning novel The Life of Pi. The two books are very different, but with premises that sound so close that it created controversy — and a threatened lawsuit — at the time. (Adriana Franciosi/scliar.org)
Listen to the full episode52:08

Moacyr Scliar was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1937. The descendant of Russian Jews, he grew up in Bom Fim, a neighbourhood he likened to New York's Lower East Side. He became a doctor and made a career in public health, but at the same time he was writing prolifically, authoring novels, short stories and nonfiction. By the time of his death in 2011 at the age of 73, he had written over 60 books. He is known for his allegorical approach, which is playful but often troubling, and features surprising animals in the foreground. When Yann Martel won the 2002 Booker Prize for Life of Pi, he said, "I'm indebted to Mr. Moacyr Scliar for the spark of life." 

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Moacyr Scliar in 2004, when he was in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors. 

ON HIS JEWISH-BRAZILIAN IDENTITY

It's a country with a very rich culture. Brazilians are a very brave people, and very tolerant. I'm not saying that there's no prejudice or racism — there is — but not the kind you had in South Africa, for instance, or even in the United States a few decades ago. Immigrants were very well received and accepted in Brazil. So we had no problems.

My culture is a mixed culture, and my literature is also a mix of many influences. I consider myself a Brazilian writer, who brings to Brazilian literature this component of the Jewish culture and tradition. I am not a religious man. [Judaism] is mainly the history and the sense of belonging to this group that has so many values to transmit and such important lessons to give to humanity. A group with so many writers and poets and composers and artists. I am very proud of being Jewish, which is not always the case with writers — some Jewish writers don't feel comfortable with the position, even in Brazil. But for me, I think that you are entitled to all the identities you happen to have. You have the right to several identities. 

ON MAGICAL REALISM AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

1968 in Brazil was a very sad year. It was the worst year in the history of the military dictatorship.  When I speak about the animals [in his book of short stories, The Carnival of the Animals], I am in fact speaking about the political situation in Brazil at that time. I am using what was called the magical realism, following the model set by Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and many other Latin American writers. At that time, military dictatorships were the rule all over Latin America, and writers were concerned about freedom of expression. They did seize many books at that time, and many writers went to jail. To be a writer was to be a political militant. There was no other alternative. We did it as a protest against the situation.

ON THE SYMBOLISM OF CENTAURS AND TIGERS

After I finished [The Centaur in the Garden], I began to think about the centaur, and I realized that the centaur meant several things to me. One thing was the ambivalence between the human and the animal condition, which is a symbol for the ambivalence of being the son of immigrants. We have this double identity — the identity from our parents and the identity of the country we live in. To have a double identity can be a problem, but not for writers. For writers it is a source of inspiration. For me, it was a source of inspiration. 

The tigers [in Max and the Cats] are the impulses, drives and forces that we have sometimes that we cannot control. Prejudices, for instance, are like tigers within us, struggling to kill someone. It's a metaphor. 

Moacyr Scliar's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Depois que O Ile Passar," composed by Miltão, performed by Virgínia Rodrigues.

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