Born in the Ukraine in the 1920s, Clarice Lispector was a Brazilian novelist and short story writer. Despite being her last novel, Hour of the Star was the first I read, and I was surprised and captivated by its strange, haunting and thought-provoking style.
Translated from the Portuguese original, this short novel encompasses the essence of the postmodern genre and should be a staple read on any world literature syllabus.
The novel follows Macabéa, a young impoverished girl facing a difficult life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. She is conceived as a non-entity living on the cusp of existence and her stupidity prevents her from being aware of the sadness the world dictates she should feel for her poverty-stricken life, her failure in relationships and her non-existent self-esteem. She is the ultimate victim of life, bordering the distinction between simply existing by ‘inhaling and exhaling’ and really living. But it is for this reason that for me she quickly became one of literature’s most loveable anti-heroines.
Perhaps most striking about this book, other than its unique protagonist, is its intriguing metafictional structure. Her previous novels The Passion of GH and Breath of Life were a stream of consciousness style, but Hour of the Star was less so. It is a multi-faceted narrative which not only concerns itself with the life of the protagonist, but also the life of her creator, her god, her author. An engaging puppet-puppeteer dynamic ensues as Rodrigo S.M. orchestrates Macabéa’s fate whilst musing on his own, making the novel a philosophical contemplation on the writing process itself.
Lispector is particularly successful at satirising the generally detached nature of male-female relationships in the modern technological age
The narrator’s monopoly over Macabéa’s fate also brings gender politics, a central concern of the novel, to the forefront. Lispector is particularly successful at satirising both the patriarchal structures at work within the increasingly consumerist society of 20th century Brazil and the generally detached nature of male-female relationships in the modern technological age.
As well as tackling these major socio-economic concerns, Lispector effectively encourages her readers to question far more profound and universal issues like the foundations of the human condition. She asks: “Who hasn’t ever wondered: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?” Lispector’s final masterpiece is saturated with fascinating digressions and existential musings such as this which make the book a page-turner in every sense of the term.
It is true that some may find the language inaccessible or even pretentious. Lispector has been deemed Brazil’s equivalent to the notoriously challenging James Joyce after all, and she even recycles his famous “yes” in her opening and closing lines.
But, as an English student who is accustomed to reading endless amounts of prose, I appreciate the richness of Lispector’s language and her lively approach to storytelling. She employs weird and wonderful descriptions to define her characters, ranging from “cold coffee” to “a half-empty sack of crumbled toast” to “a thin slice of watermelon”. Her language is sharp, relentless and memorable and this novel is one of those rare books from which I could quite happily cite every page.
This book cannot be read passively and you can’t simply discover its meaning through a quick Google search
Unlike Joyce’s Ulysses, Lispector’s novel is modest in length at under 100 pages. In other words, you won’t feel like you’ve run a philosophical marathon after reading it, but it will provide you with a quiet afternoon’s worth of contemplation on anything from belief to truth, happiness and humanity.
However, this book cannot be read passively and you can’t simply discover its meaning through a quick Google search. Reading Lispector is like going on a journey of your own mind as much as hers. Be prepared for an inconsistent structure, a far from conventional narrative progression and an intentionally cruel sense of ironic humour. Not to mention the stark contrast between blatant real-life struggles like impoverishment, female exploitation and destructive consumer capitalism and the unexpected dose of magical realism that Lispector imports to the novel.
All things considered, this is not a book for the faint-hearted. But if you like postmodern fiction, the style of Joyce or the absurdity of Kafka, you certainly won’t regret spending a few hours exploring this labyrinth of a novel. It manages to be hard-hitting and satirical, but also beautifully tragic. You may even – like me – find yourself re-reading it and developing new and profound interpretations each time given its unbeatable layers of meaning.