Wednesday, December 12, 2012

510. The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector

History: This book was published in 1977, shortly after the author's death. Clarice used her own childhood in the Northeast region of Brazil as reference to build the protagonist Macabéa. She also mentioned a gathering of people from this region in the São Cristóvão neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, where she first captured the "disoriented look" of the Northeasterns in the city. Clarice was also inspired by a fortune teller she visited, an event upon which she bases the final part of the plot. When she was leaving the fortune teller's house, she found amusing to imagine herself being hit by a yellow Mercedes and dying immediately after hearing all the good projections the fortune teller foresaw for her future.
The novel was composed from short fragments that Lispector and her secretary, Olga Borelli, pieced together. Lispector was not aware that she was dying at the time she wrote it, though the work is full of premonitions of her upcoming death.
The Hour of the Star deals with the problems of the rural Northeast versus the urban Southeast, poverty and the dream of a better life, and, of an uneducated woman’s struggle to survive in a sexist society. In February 1977, Lispector gave her only televised interview, with Júlio Lerner of TV Cultura in São Paulo. In it, she mentioned a book she had just completed with “thirteen names, thirteen titles,” though she refused to name them. According to her, the book is "the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. That’s not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”
Plot: Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life's unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid the realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn't seem to understand how unhappy she should be.
Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator - edge of despair to edge of despair - and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader's preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction, taking readers close to the true mystery of life.
Review: Clarice Lispector died young but not quite unknown in Brazil, and her novels are neglected but not quite unknown internationally. Those who have read her agree that she was a thoughtful, twisted, occasionally brilliant author of short novels about very little on the surface: a woman killing a cockroach, for instance. The ingenuity lies in what Lispector did with her mundane situations: she turned them into fables of horrible psychological bullying, protestations against the weirdness and incoherence of things, dirges for the loss of magic. In Lispector's world, events are both intimately connected and entirely unconnected. Anticlimax is the norm and everywhere present. Virtue is unrewarded, but so is crime. And the great irony is that for all the darkness, Lispector's writing is still beautiful, life-affirming, enchanting.
Lispector's final novel was written before she knew she was dying of cancer. It is, nevertheless, a death book. Everything about The Hour of the Star hints at the final moment. More than the death of the body is tackled in it — the gradual death of hope and optimism. Its protagonist, Macabea, is so tragically ordinary, and painted with such violent malice by the male writer-narrator for being so ordinary, that by the end of this 90-page work this reader was left feeling sick. The tiny novel moves from incident to pointless incident without things ever turning out well for Macabea, and nobody (not her philandering boyfriend, not her workmate, not even the narrator who claims to imagine her whole life story out of a single memory of a girl he once saw) seems capable of caring about her. From the novel's opening pages — which bounce about aimlessly as the narrator flexes his muscles and indulges in all manner of philosophical trickery — to the last paragraph, wherein we are reminded, immediately after the absurd but tragic final scene, that we are in the season for strawberries, there is no drop of hope for Macabea. She is an antiheroine simply because there's nothing heroic about her, yet she is also not a villain. Macabea is the loneliest character in her world of lonely characters.
Why would anyone want to read a novel in which nothing but bad things happen to a good person? That is the mystery of The Hour of the Star. It is a difficult but moving read, and its heart is entirely compressed into Macabea. It does not matter how cruelly the narrator invents her, or how manipulatively her boyfriend toys with her feelings, or how indifferently the universe kills her off: we still like Macabea. She is anything but clever, and too naive for her own good, but precisely because of these qualities, which are so rare in the novel's universe, she stands out as the brightest light in this very dark story. In juxtaposing the senselessness of existence with the potential for good in human beings, Lispector makes her case remarkably well. Even if our narrator-creator seems self-absorbed and tyrannical and quick to bore; even if our friends are vain and try to use us for no real gain; and even if death comes suddenly and unfairly, the moments of beauty make the suffering seem a little more worth it. Macabea is this hope.
Opening Line: “Everything in the world began with a yes.”
Closing Line: “Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.”
Quotes: “Do not mourn the dead. They know what they are doing.”
Rating: Good.

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