Thursday, October 24, 2013

Brazil: Clarice Lispector and "The Hour of the Star"

Decades ago, when I was grade school, we studied Brazil and the then-brand new capital, Brasília. A Jetson-style city rising out of nothing fascinated me. Little of that newness shows up in  The Hour of the Star,  a novella set in Rio de Janiero. This work encompasses strangely beautiful writing, odd rhythyms, and deeply moving themes about the role of creator and created, personal happiness, and the loneliness of poverty.

Among lines I marked are these:

The narrator: "And what I write is a moist fog. Words are sounds transfused with unequal shadows that intersect, stalactites, lace, transfigured organ music." (p. 8)

and again: "Since as I said the word has to resemble the word, my instrument. Or am I not a writer? Actually I'm more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another's breathing to accompany my text." (p. 14).  [In a post-script by the translator,  we learn that Ms. Lispector punctuated the way she believed the phrases sounded, not according to the rules of grammar.]

Now here is the narrartor part-way through introducing his young female character, Macabéa.

"...The girl didn't wonder why she was always being punished but you don't have to know everything and not knowing was an important part of her life.
     "That not-knowing might seem awful but it's not that bad becase she knew lots of things in the way nobody teaches a dog to wag his tail or a person to feel hungry; you're born and you just know...." (p. 20)

Then as the story reaches nears the climax:

"She stumbled out of and stopped in the alleyway darkened by the dusk--dusk which is the hour of no one...So much richness of atmosphere received her and the first grimace of the night which, yes, yes, was deep and showy...Macabéa stood a little dizzy...since her life had already been changed. And changed by words--we have known since Moses that the word is divine." (p. 69-70)

There are more and more beautiful phrases and images than I can cite. As for the story, our narrator tells us that Macabéa lived as a child in the northeastern portion of the country, in the city of Maceio, capital of the state Alagoas. She moved to Rio for work when her guardian died. She gets a job, falls in love, and for the most part, she finds joy, with her spirit unhurt.

One review mentions that her name, from the Maccabees, alludes to a Jewish rebel army that wrested Judea away from a foreign emperor, circa 164 BCE.  The name comes from a word for "hammer."  But as noted in an earlier post, I am still deaf or blind or whatever it is to symbolism, so you can help me figure out what all of that might mean. I see more of the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge in the text than anything but I am well aware of my deficiencies.

Quotations are from the translation by Benjamin Moser released in the U.S. in 2011, published by New Directions Books.

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