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Maimonides in Brazil : THE STRANGE NATION OF RAFAEL MENDES by Moacyr Scliar; translated by Eloah F. Giacomelli (Harmony Books: $19.95; 309 pp.)

January 24, 1988|Mark R. Day | Day is a writer, broadcaster and journalist who lives in Lima, Peru.

Rafael Mendes is in a bind. The finance house he owns in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is facing bankruptcy. His daughter treats him with insolence and is having an affair with his best friend, and Rafael's elderly mother is beginning to show signs of bizarre behavior.

In the midst of all this, Rafael comes across three notebooks his father left behind in 1937 when he abandoned his family and set out for Spain, allegedly to fight against Generalissimo Francisco Francos's forces in the Spanish Civil War.

Reading the notebooks provides Rafael with his biggest problem and greatest challenge--to explore his genealogical roots and find out who he is.

The manuscripts are loaded with allegory and fable mixed with occasional historical fact. They trace his family's history from biblical to modern times. What emerges as truth, though, is that Rafael Mendes--a perplexed, lapsed Catholic who occasionally sits in Sao Paulo's cathedral, crossing himself--is really Jewish. He is a "New Christian," a Jew whose family, because of historical circumstances, has converted to Christianity.

"The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes" is Moacyr Scliar's second novel. Scliar, a practicing physician, is a descendant of Russian Jews who came to Brazil in the 1920s. He was born in Porto Alegre in 1937. Most of his 17 books, chiefly novellas and short stories, deal with the Jewish neighborhood of Bom Fim in Porto Alegre where he was raised. His stories recapture the Jewish Brazilian experience through the use of biblical parables, morality tales and funny anecdotes richly intertwined with Jewish folklore, customs and fantasy.

Reading "The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes" is like riding with a friend who drives recklessly. The novel lurches forward unexpectedly, jumping from fact to fantasy, passing on hills, taking hairpin turns with history and dangerously skirting precipices separating the plausible from the absurd. It's a frustrating experience at times, but exhilarating and ultimately rewarding.

Rafael Mendes learns that the prophet Jonah and the Spanish physician-philosopher Moses Maimonides were among his ancestors.

Scliar utilizes his medical expertise to portray Maimonides, who, in later life, became the personal physician to an Arab sultan. During a routine physical checkup, Maimonides questions the ruler about his dietary habits and bowel movements. He is pleased to see that "his patient's mucous membranes are pink and moist, that there is no furring on his tongue and that his pulse is regular."

Maimonides eventually becomes bored with his job and longs to return to attending to more than one patient. He stays awake at night, pondering ultimate questions and tinkering with his philosophical theories. His restlessness disturbs his wife. "Go to bed," she says. "It's late, you'll have to be in your office tomorrow."

There is a touch of Woody Allen there.

Eventually, Maimonides' offspring migrate to Portugal and adopt the name Mendes. His son becomes a map maker for Christopher Columbus. His grandson, Rafael Mendes, is tortured by representatives of the Holy Inquisition for being a "crypto-Jew." The torture scenes are full of sardonic humor, reminiscent of Mel Brooks' spoof, "The History of the World, Part II."

The prisoner who previously occupied Rafael's cell had gone mad. Just before being taken to the stake to be burned, he turned to the judges and said, "Kindly Christians. I thank you for having lit this fire to warm me up. That's what I really needed. I have arthritis and the cold is bad for me." He warmed his hands and was seized and thrown into the fire.

Rafael miraculously avoids being burned at the stake. He stows away on a ship bound for Brazil and escapes death during a shipboard mutiny by jumping overboard and swimming ashore to his new homeland.

There his sons and grandsons and great-grandsons, all named Rafael Mendes, mingle with other Jewish immigrants--schemers, fortune hunters, social reformers, scientists and dentists.

In "The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes," as in his other writings, Scliar explores contradictions, dualisms and polarities to understand the state of being Jewish, a state which the Brazilian critic Anatol Rosenfeld calls "between two worlds."

Scliar also uses myth and fable to articulate a multidimensional image of the Jew's--of every person's--struggle with life and identity. He once told a reporter from the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that his relationship with Judaism was dialectical. "Judaism itself is dialectical," he said. "Within it there is a Marx and a Rothschild, the philosopher Martin Buber and the gangster Meyer Lanski."

Those very contradictions, said Scliar, "exasperate the anti-Semites who are confused when they see their well constructed stereotypes collapse."

A number of plot twists occur before Rafael Mendes, the Sao Paulo businessman, comes to realize he is Jewish and that the faces that appear to him in a dream, including those of Jonah, Maimonides and all the men named Rafael Mendes, are him. And he is all of them.

"The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes" has its limitations--a superfluity of characters and subplots, an overuse of the deus ex machina device to extricate heroes and anti-heroes from the jaws of annihilation, and transitions that bulge and burst at the seams. But Scliar is a wonderful, imaginative writer, and his message--individual and group identity--is an urgent one for all, regardless of racial, religious or ethnic origins.

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