Centaur in the Garden

by Moacyr Scliar
ISBN: 0886194202

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A Review of: The Centaur in the Garden
by Eric Miller

Before I address the substance of Moacyr Scliar's novel, which was originally published in Portuguese in 1980, I must first regretfully register a complaint about the format of the present paperback edition. The margins of the pages are so tight that to read the words as they approached or departed from the spine of the book became for me an operation too much like physically digging for something lodged in a resistant medium. The Centaur in the Garden, as its title suggests, concerns itself with a case of metamorphosis. The book transformed me into an anxious reader: ocular toil partially compromised my response to Scliar's work despite my sincere good will.
The narrator of Scliar's novel faces a similar problem on a more comprehensive scale. Born a centaur in Brazil to Jewish parents who emigrated from Russia, Guedali Tartakovsky eventually undergoes surgery in Morocco to gain a semblance of human form and to secure the advantages presumed to be consequent on assuming that form. As centaur and as reconstructed human being, he also experiences, between 1935 and 1973, a variety of orthodox novelistic events: the alienation of belonging to a persecuted minority; sundry refractions of the communitarian vehemence of the 1960s; and the sexual irregularities incident to that durably imperfect institution, bourgeois marriage. Other occurrences are more fabulous: life as a real freak among the fakes of a circus show; the love of a fellow centaur, Tita; and, later, cuckolding by a male of the same half-equine kind. At one point, Guedali Tartakovsky even copulates, in North Africa, with a convincingly feline sphinx.
Scliar sufficiently maintains readerly interest through the first half or two thirds of his book. Some dropping off happens thereafter, as though his commitment to a chronological division of novelistic matter (each chapter bears a subtitle specifying the dates between which its contents transpire) forced him to sustain an even-handed mimesis of passing time, when a more episodic approach might sometimes have suited him better. But even the latter part of the novel gives pleasure by reason of Scliar's pungent style, enjoyable in Margaret A. Neves's translation. Scliar usually writes brief sentences, which achieve a pleasant velocity without surrendering their burden of persistent and particularized fantasy. As is natural in a novel featuring centaurs, running is a recurrent theme; Scliar dovetails this theme with the fashionable adoption of jogging in the 1970s, and produces a characteristic parenthetical riff on the topic:

"It's good to run. My friends go running every morning. They do at least six laps around the park, claiming it's a good way to avoid strokes. They also say that running clears the mind, that the brain, agitated inside the cranium, releases all its worries and obsessions-you can see a little cloud of vapor going up from the heads of great runners."

Here veridicality changes into something close to mythology, close to Swiftian physiology; the passage exemplifies Scliar's fine agility in leaping between empiricism and fancifulness. A parallel passage discusses walking, when Guedali Tartakovsky wants to recoup some of the centaurine qualities he lost at the time of his humanizing operation in Morocco:

"I wanted to walk barefoot, I wanted to grow calluses on the soles of my feet, to make them even tougher, ever more like hooves. I wanted real hooves, in short. Hooves of which each layer should be the result of long walks over earth and stones, of meditation on the meaning of life. I intended to walk a great deal."

Fortunately, Scliar does not blatantly limit the significance attached to the idea or symbol of the centaur. At most, the condition of this beast may stand vaguely for pre-social, even solipsistic freedom. Sometimes the horse appears as the antagonist of the screen, as in this confession from one of Guedali's fully human friends, Joel: "When I go to sleep, I dream about televisions On the screens of these televisions, I see other televisions, and on their screens still other televisions Swarms of television sets pursue me. At times like that I would do anything for a horse To gallop off in the fresh air would do me no end of good." This kind of opposition no longer holds: our biology is technology and our technology biology, so that we have lost recourse to nature as the antagonist of culture. The argument that we must recover our bodiliness among the apparitions and prostheses of the machine age cannot any longer gain the same firm traction in truth that it could, until recently, muster. DNA has taken on the aspect of natural artifice. In this sense, the rhetoric of Scliar's novel occasionally stands as a representative instance of a tendency in thought that two decades have rendered historical, rather than persuasively contemporary.
The Centaur in the Garden gains reflexive power from its having been set in a great country from which many of us hear too little, Brazil. For a Canadian reader, Scliar's novel does not offer, despite its mythological personnel, the suspect pleasures of exoticism so much as an energizing sense of the magnitude of the world. Scliar's talent as a storyteller animates the paradox that a fantastical theme can conduce to a plausible realization of the limits and permissions of human life. Guedali the centaur's conjectures concerning others, such as the aboriginal man whom he impulsively names Peri, typically overshoot the unromantic yet mysterious reality that Scliar's narrative steadily discloses. Peri (his true name is Remio) is more complex than Guedali initially allows. Scliar thus characteristically chastens the imaginative excesses of a mythological creature; this interesting dialectic of the legendary and the naturalistic enlivens the majority of the pages of The Centaur in the Garden. As a writer, Scliar is himself a centaur, fusing discrepant worlds into a strange but attractive whole.

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