View Poll Results: Clarice Lispector
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Big Sister IS watchIng me Sleep
Clarice Lispector: EIE (Ni-ENFj) [Harmonizing subtype]; or IEI-Ni
- from The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (Translated with an Afterword by Giovanni Pontiero); pp. 7-9 [The Author’s Dedication (alias Clarice Lispector)]: I dedicate this narrative to dear old Schumann and his beloved Clara who are now, alas, nothing but dust and ashes. I dedicate it to the deep crimson of my blood as someone in his prime. I dedicate it, above all, to those gnomes, dwarfs, sylphs, and nymphs who inhabit my life. I dedicate it to the memory of my years of hardship when everything was more austere and honourable, and I had never eaten lobster. I dedicate it to the tempest of Beethoven. To the vibrations of Bach’s neutral colours. To Chopin who leaves me weak. To Stravinsky who terrifies me and makes me soar in flames. To Death and Transfiguration, in which Richard Strauss predicts my fate. Most of all, I dedicate it to the day’s vigil and to day itself, to the transparent voice of Debussy, to Marlos Nobre, to Prokofiev, to Carl Orff and Schoenberg, to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident notes of an electronic generation—to all those musicians who have touched within me the most alarming and unsuspected regions; to all those prophets of our age who have revealed me to myself and made me explode into: me. This me that is you, for I cannot bear to be simply me, I need others in order to stand up, giddy and awkward as I am, for what can one do except meditate in order to plunge into that total void which can only be attained through meditation. Meditation need not bear fruit: meditation can be an end in itself. I meditate without words or themes. What troubles my existence is writing.
And we must never forget that if the atom’s structure is invisible, it is none the less real. I am aware of the existence of many things I have never seen. And you too. One cannot prove the existence of what is most real but the essential thing is to believe. To weep and believe. This story unfolds in a state of emergency and public calamity. It is an unfinished book because it offers no answer. An answer I hope someone somewhere in the world may be able to provide. You perhaps? It is a story in technicolour to add a touch of luxury, for heaven knows, I need that too. Amen for all of us.
THE HOUR OF THE STAR
The Blame is Mine
The Hour of the Star
Let Her Fend for Herself
The Right to Protest
. . .
.As for the Future.
Singing the Blues
She Doesn’t Know How to Protest
A Sense of Loss
Whistling in the Dark Wind
I Can Do Nothing
A Record of Preceding Events
A Tearful Tale
A Discreet Exit by the Back Door
- pp. 11-13: So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before the pre-prehistory there already existed apocalyptic monsters? If this history does not exist, it will come to exist. To think is an act. To feel is a fact. Put the two together—it is me who is writing what I am writing. God is the world. The truth is always some inner power without explanation. The more genuine part of my life is unrecognizable, extremely intimate and impossible to define. My heart has shed every desire and reduced itself to one final or initial beat. The toothache that passes through this narrative has given me a sharp twinge right in the mouth. I break out into a strident, high-pitched, syncopated melody. It is the sound of my own pain, of someone who carries this world where there is so little happiness. Happiness? I have never come across a more foolish word, invented by all those unfortunate girls from north-eastern Brazil.
I should explain that this story will emerge from a gradual vision—for the past two and a half years I have slowly started discovering the whys and the wherefores. It is the vision of the imminence of . . . of what? Perhaps I shall find out later. Just as I am writing at the same time as I am being read. Only I do not start with the ending that would justify the beginning—as death appears to comment on life—because I must record the preceding events.
Even as I write this I feel ashamed at pouncing on you with a narrative that is so open and explicit. A narrative, however, from which blood surging with life might flow only to coagulate into lumps of trembling jelly. Will this story become my own coagulation one day? Who can tell? If there is any truth in it—and clearly the story is true even though invented—let everyone see it reflected in himself for we are all one and the same person, and he who is not poor in terms of money is poor in spirit or feeling for he lacks something more precious than gold—for there are those who do not possess that essential essence.
How do I know all that is about to follow if it is unfamiliar and something I have never experienced? In a street in Rio de Janeiro I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the North-east. Without mentioning that I myself was raised as a child in the North-east. Besides, I know about certain things simply by living. Anyone who lives, knows, even without knowing that he or she knows. So, dear readers, you know more than you imagine, however much you may deny it.
I do not intend to write anything complicated, although I am obliged to use the words that sustain you. The story—I have decided with an illusion of free will—should have some seven characters, and obviously I am one of the more important.
I, Rodrigo S.M. A traditional tale for I have no desire to be modish and invent colloquialisms under the guise of originality. So I shall attempt, contrary to my normal method, to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and a ‘grand finale’ followed by silence and falling rain.
A story that is patently open and explicit yet holds certain secrets—starting with one of the book’s titles ‘As For The Future’, preceded and followed by a full stop. This is no caprice on my part—hopefully this need for confinement will ultimately become clear. (The ending is still so vague yet, were my poverty to permit, I should like it to be grandiose.) If, instead of a full stop, the title were followed by dotted lines, it would remain open to every kind of speculation on your part, however morbid or pitiless.
- pp. 14-16: I know that there are girls who sell their bodies, their only real possession, in exchange for a good dinner rather than the usual mortadella sandwich. But the person whom I am about to describe scarcely has a body to sell; nobody desires her, she is a harmless virgin whom nobody needs. It strikes me that I don’t need her either and that what I am writing could be written by another. Another writer, of course, but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out.
There are thousands of girls like this girl from the Northeast to be found in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, living in bedsitters or toiling behind counters for all they are worth. They aren’t even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence. Few of them ever complain and as far as I know they never protest for there is no one to listen.
I am warming up before making a start, rubbing my hands together to summon up my courage. I can remember a time when I used to pray in order to kindle my spirit: movement is spirit. Prayer was a means of confronting myself in silence away from the gaze of others. As I prayed I emptied my soul—and this emptiness is everything that I can ever hope to possess. Apart from this, there is nothing. But emptiness, too, has its value and somehow resembles abundance. One way of obtaining is not to search, one way of possessing is not to ask; simply to believe that my inner silence is the solution to my—to my mystery.
It is my intention, as I suggested earlier, to write with ever greater simplicity. Besides, the material at my disposal is all too sparse and mundane, I possess few details about my characters and those details are not very revealing; details that laboriously stem from me only to return to me; the craft of carpentry.
Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases. Like every writer, I am clearly tempted to use succulent terms: I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere as they move into action. For surely words are actions? Yet I have no intention of adorning the word, for were I to touch the girl’s bread, that bread would turn to gold—and the girl (she is nineteen years old) the girl would be unable to bite into it, and consequently die of hunger. So I must express myself simply—without making too much fuss about my humility for then it would no longer be humility—I confine myself to narrating the unremarkable adventures of a girl living in a hostile city. A girl who should have stayed in the backwoods of Alagoas wearing a cotton dress and avoiding the typewriter, for she was barely literate and had only received three years of primary schooling. She was so backward that when she typed she was obliged to copy out every word slowly, letter by letter. Her aunt had given her a crash course in typing. As a result, the girl had acquired some dignity: she was a typist at last, even though she appeared to have some difficulty in stringing two consonants together. When she copied out the attractive, rotund handwriting of the boss, whom she idolized, the word ‘designate’ became ‘desiginate’, for that is how she herself would have pronounced it.
Forgive me if I add something more about myself since my identity is not very clear, and when I write I am surprised to find that I possess a destiny. Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?
First of all, I must make it clear that this girl does not know herself apart from the fact that she goes on living aimlessly. Were she foolish enough to ask herself ‘Who am I?’, she would fall flat on her face. For the question ‘Who am I?’ creates a need. And how does one satisfy that need? To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.
The person of whom I am about to speak is so simple-minded that she often smiles at other people on the street. No one acknowledges her smile for they don’t even notice her.
Coming back to myself: what I am about to write cannot be assimilated by minds that expect much and crave sophistication. For what I am about to express will be quite stark. Although it may have as its background—even now—the tormented shadows that haunt my dreams as I sleep tormented at night. Do not, therefore, expect stars in what follows for nothing will scintillate. This is opaque material and by its very nature it is despised by everyone. This story has no melody that could be rightly termed cantabile. Its rhythm is frequently discordant. It also contains facts. I have always been enthusiastic about facts without literature—facts are hard stones and I am much more interested in action than in meditation. There is no way of escaping facts.
I ask myself if I should jump ahead in time and sketch out an ending immediately. As it happens, I have no idea how this story will end. I also realize that I must proceed step by step in accordance with a period of time measured in hours: even animals struggle with time. This, too, is my first condition; to proceed slowly notwithstanding my impatience to tell you about this girl.
In writing this story, I shall yield to emotion and I know perfectly well that every day is one more day stolen from death. In no sense an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is like a dank haze. The words are sounds transfused with shadows that intersect unevenly, stalactites, woven lace, transposed organ music. I can scarcely invoke the words to describe this pattern, vibrant and rich, morbid and obscure, its counterpoint the deep bass of sorrow. Allegro con brio.
- pp. 198-20: Yes, I belong to no social category, marginal as I am. The upper classes consider me a strange creature, the middle classes regard me with suspicion, afraid that I might unsettle them, while the lower classes avoid me.
No, it is not easy to write. It is as hard as breaking rocks. Sparks and splinters fly like shattered steel.
I am scared of starting. I do not even know the girl’s name. It goes without saying that this story drives me to despair because it is too straightforward. What I propose to narrate sounds easy and within everyone’s grasp. But its elaboration is extremely difficult. I must render clear something that is almost obliterated and can scarcely be deciphered. With stiff, contaminated fingers I must touch the invisible in its own squalor.
Of one thing I am certain: this narrative will combine with something delicate: the creation of an entire human being who is as much alive as I am. I have taken care of her because my mandate is simply to reveal her presence so that you may recognize her on the street, moving ever so cautiously because of her quivering frailty. And should my narrative turn out to be sad? Later, I shall almost certainly write something more cheerful, but why cheerful? Because I, too, am a man of hosannas and perhaps one day I shall intone praises instead of the misfortunes of the girl from the North-east.
Meantime, I want to walk naked or in rags; I want to experience at least once the insipid flavour of the Host. To eat communion bread will be to taste the world’s indifference, and to immerse myself in nothingness. This will be my courage: to abandon comforting sentiments from the past.
There is little comfort now. In order to speak about the girl I mustn’t shave for days. I must acquire dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep: dozing from sheer exhaustion like a manual labourer. Also wearing threadbare clothes. I am doing all this to put myself on the same footing as the girl from the North-east. Fully aware that I might have to present myself in a more convincing manner to societies who demand a great deal from someone who is typing at this very moment.
Yes, all this, for history is history. But knowing beforehand so as never to forget that the word is the fruit of the word. The word must resemble the word. To attain the word is my first duty to myself. The word must not be adorned and become aesthetically worthless; it must be simply itself. It is also true that I have attempted to acquire a certain refinement of feeling and that this extreme refinement should not break into a perpetual line. At the same time, I have attempted to imitate the deep, raw, dense sound of the trombone, for no good reason except that I feel so nervous about writing that I might explode into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. I want to accept my freedom without reaching the conclusion like so many others: that existence is only for fools and lunatics: for it would seem that to exist is illogical.
The action of this story will result in my transfiguration into someone else and in my ultimate materialization into an object. Perhaps I might even acquire the sweet tones of the flute and become entwined in a creeper vine.
- pp. 23-26: The story will also be accompanied throughout by the plangent tones of a violin played by a musician on the street corner. His face is thin and sallow as if he had just died. Perhaps he is dead. I have explained these details at great length for fear of having promised too much and offering too little. My story is almost trivial. The trick is to begin suddenly, like plunging into an icy sea and bearing its intense coldness with suicidal courage. I am about to begin in the middle by telling you that—
-- that she was inept. Inept for living. She had no idea how to cope with life and she was only vaguely aware of her own inner emptiness. Were she capable of explaining herself, she might well confide: the world stands outside me. I stand outside myself. (It’s going to be difficult to tell this story. Even though I have nothing to do with the girl, I shall have to write everything through her, trapped as I am by my own fears. The facts are sonorous but among the facts there is a murmuring. It is the murmuring that frightens me.)
The girl had no way of coping. So much so, (bang) that she made no protest when the boss of her firm which distributed pulley equipment bluntly warned her (a bluntness she seemed to provoke with that foolish expression on her face as if begging to be slapped) that he was only prepared to keep on her workmate Gloria. He told her he was fed up with her typing mistakes and those blots she invariably made on the paper. The girl felt that she ought to say something to show respect for this boss with whom she was secretly infatuated.
-- Please forgive all the trouble I’ve caused. Senhor Raimundo Silveira, who had already turned his back on her, looked round surprised by the girl’s politeness, and something in her docile expression forced him to speak less harshly, and grudgingly concede:
-- Well, you needn’t leave right away. Let’s see how things work out.
After receiving this warning, the girl went to the lavatory where she could be alone, for she felt quite shaken. She examined herself mechanically in the mirror above the filthy hand basin that was badly cracked and full of hairs: the image of her own existence. The dark, tarnished mirror scarcely reflected any image. Perhaps her physical existence had vanished? This illusion soon passed and she saw her entire face distorted by the tarnished mirror; her nose had grown as huge as those false noses made of papier mache donned by circus clowns. She studied herself and mused: so young and yet so tarnished.
(There are those who have. And there are those who have not. It’s very simple: the girl had not. Hadn’t what? Simply this: she had not. If you get my meaning that’s fine. If you don’t, it’s still fine. But why am I bothering about this girl when what I really want is wheat that turns ripe and golden in summer?)
When she was a little girl, her aunt, in order to frighten her, insisted that the vampire—the one that sucks human blood by biting its victims in the flesh of the neck—casts no reflection in the mirror. She reckoned that it might not be such a bad thing being a vampire, for the blood would add a touch of pink to her sallow complexion. For she gave the impression of having no blood unless a day might come when she would have to spill it.
The girl had drooping shoulders like those of a darning woman. She had learned to darn as a child, and she might have made more of her life had she devoted herself to the delicate task of mending, perhaps even with silken threads. Or even more luxurious: shiny satin, a kiss of souls. The darning-needle turned mosquito. A granule of sugar carried on an ant’s back. She was as light-headed as an idiot, only she was no idiot. She wasn’t even aware that she was unhappy. The one thing she had was faith. In what? In you? It isn’t necessary to have faith in anyone or in anything—it is enough to have faith. This often endowed her with a state of grace. For she had never lost faith.
(The girl worries me so much that I feel drained. She has drained me empty. And the less she demands, the more she worries me. I feel frustrated and annoyed. A raging desire to smash dishes and break windows. How can I avenge myself? Or rather, how can I get satisfaction? I’ve found the answer: by loving my dog that consumes more food than she does. Why does she not fight back? Has she no pluck? No, she is sweet and docile.)
Her eyes were enormous, round, bulging and inquisitive—she had the expression of someone with a broken wing—some deficiency of the thyroid gland—questioning eyes. Whom was she questioning? God? She did not think about God, nor did God think about her. God belongs to those who succeed in pinning Him down. God appears in a moment of distraction. She asked no questions. She divined that there were no answers. Was she foolish enough to ask? Only to get a blunt no in reply? Perhaps she thought about this futile question so that no one could ever accuse her one day of never having asked.
- pp. 27-29: When she was two years old, her parents died of typhoid fever in the backwoods of Alagoas, in that region where the devil is said to have lost his boots. Much later she went to live in Maceio with her maiden aunt, a sanctimonious spinster, and the girl’s only surviving relative in the whole wide world. On occasion the girl would recall some incident from her time there. For instance, her aunt rapping her on the head because the old woman believed that the crown of the head was the vital part of one’s body. Her aunt would use her knuckles to rap that head of skin and bones which suffered from a calcium deficiency. She would thrash the girl not only because she derived some sensuous pleasure from thrashing her—the old girl found the idea of sexual intercourse so disgusting that she had never married—but also because she considered it her duty to see that the girl did not finish up like many another girl in Maceio standing on street corners with a lit cigarette waiting to pick up a man. So far the girl had shown no signs of becoming a prostitute one day. Even puberty seemed alien to her destiny. Puberty was slow in coming but even among weeds there exists a need for sunlight. The girl soon forgot those thrashings. If you wait patiently, the pain soon passes. But what pained her more was to be denied her favourite dessert: guava preserve with cheese, the only real passion in her life. Her sly old aunt enjoyed punishing her in this way. The girl didn’t dare ask why she was always being punished. One doesn’t have to know everything and not knowing became an important factor in her life.
Not knowing sounds awful, but it was not so awful for the girl knew lots of things just as a dog knows how to wag its tail or a beggar how to feel hungry: things happen and you suddenly know. No one would teach her how to die one day: yet one day she would surely die as if she had already learned by heart how to play the starring role. For at the hour of death you become a celebrated film star, it is a moment of glory for everyone, when the choral music scales the top notes.
When she was tiny, the girl dearly longed to possess a pet animal. Her aunt, however, decided that an animal in the house would simply mean one more mouth to feed. The girl resigned herself, convinced that she was only fit for breeding fleas and that she didn’t deserve a dog’s affection. Her aunt’s constant reproaches had taught her to keep her head lowered. The old girl’s sanctimonious ways, however, had failed to influence her. Once her aunt was dead, the girl never again set foot inside a church. She had no religious feeling and the divinities made no impression.
Life is like that: you press a button and life lights up. Except that the girl didn’t know which button to press. She wasn’t even aware that she lived in a technological society where she was a mere cog in the machine. One thing, however, did worry her: she no longer knew if she had ever had a father or mother. She had forgotten her origins. If she had thought hard, she might have concluded that she had sprouted from the soil of Alagoas inside a mushroom that soon rotted. She could speak, of course, but had little to say. No sooner do I succeed in persuading her to speak, than she slips through my fingers.
- pp. 30-38: From time to time, the girl was lucky enough to hear a cockerel welcome the dawn. Then she would remember the backwoods of Alagoas with nostalgia. Where could there be room for a cockerel to crow in that warren of warehouses storing goods for export and import? (If the reader is financially secure and enjoys the comforts of life, he must step out of himself and see how others live. If he is poor, he will not be reading this story because what I have to say is superfluous for anyone who often feels the pangs of hunger. Here I am acting as a safety-valve for you and the tedious bourgeoisie. I know that it is very frightening to step out of oneself, but then everything which is unfamiliar can be frightening. The anonymous girl of this story is so ancient that she could be described as biblical. She was subterranean and had never really flowered. I am telling a lie: she was wild grass.)
Throughout the torrid summers, the oppressive heat of Acre Street made her sweat, a sweat that gave off an appalling stench. A sweat, I couldn’t help feeling, that stemmed from sinister origins. Difficult to say if the girl was tubercular. I rather think not. In the night shadows a man was whistling; there were heavy footsteps and the howling of an abandoned mongrel. There were silent constellations, and that space known as time which has nothing to do with her or with us. And so the days passed. The cockerel’s crowing in the blood-red dawn gave a new meaning to her withered existence. As day broke, a flock of birds chirped noisily in Acre Street: life sprouted from the ground, jubilant between the paving stones.
Acre Street for living, Lavradio Street for working, the docks for excursions on Sundays. Now and then the lingering sound of a cargo ship’s signal that strangely made the heart beat faster, and in between each signal, the consoling though somewhat melancholy cries of the cockerel.
The cockerel belonged to the never-never land. Its cries came from the infinite right up to her bedside, filling her with gratitude. She slept lightly. For the past twelve months she had been suffering from a persistent cold. In the early hours each morning, she was seized by a fit of hoarse coughing, which she tried to smother with her limp pillow. Her room-mates—Maria da Penha, Maria Aparecida, Maria Jose and plain Maria—paid no attention. They were too exhausted to complain, worn out by an occupation that was no less taxing simply because it was anonymous. One of the girls sold Coty face powder. What a curious occupation! They turned on to their other sides and went back to sleep. The girl’s coughing actually lulled them into an even deeper sleep. Is the sky above or below? The girl from the North-east was wondering. As she lay there, she couldn’t decide. Sometimes before falling asleep she felt the pangs of hunger and became quite giddy as she visualized a side of beef. The solution was to chew paper into pulp and swallow it. Honestly! I’m getting used to her but I still feel uneasy. Dear God! I feel happier with animals than with people. When I watch my horse cantering freely across the fields—I am tempted to put my head against his soft, vigorous neck and narrate the story of my life. When I stroke my dog on the head—I know that he doesn’t expect me to make sense or explain myself.
Perhaps the girl from the North-east has already come to the conclusion that life is troublesome, a soul that doesn’t quite match its body, even a delicate soul like hers. Being very superstitious, the girl imagined that if she should ever begin to enjoy life, the spell would be broken. She would cease to be a princess and become transformed into an insect. Because, however awful her situation might be, she had no wish to be deprived of herself. She feared that she would incur some terrible punishment and even be sentenced to death if she began to experience pleasure. So she shielded herself from death by living below par, by consuming her life sparingly so that it shouldn’t come to an abrupt ending. This economy provided some reassurance, for the person who falls can only hit the floor. Did she feel that she had nothing to live for? I have no way of knowing, but I think not. Only once did she ask herself that traumatic question: Who am I? The question frightened her to such an extent that her mind became paralysed. I feel, without becoming her, that I have nothing to live for. I am gratuitous, and I pay my bills for electricity, gas and telephone. As for the girl, she would sometimes buy a rose when the boss paid out her wages.
These events belong to the present and I shall only finish this awkward narrative when I am too exhausted to struggle any longer. I am no deserter.
Sometimes the girl remembered the disturbing words of a French ballad. She had heard it sung out of tune by a group of young girls who danced in a circle, joining hands—she had listened without being able to participate because her aunt was calling her to come and sweep the floor. With their long, wavy hair in pink ribbons, the girls sang: ‘Give me one of your daughters . . . mare-marre-deci.’ ‘I chose your daughter . . . mare-marre.’ A pale spectre, the music hovered like a rose of reckless beauty. Yet transient. Pale and transient, the girl was now the sweet and horrifying spectre of a childhood without games or dolls. At such moments, she would pretend that she was running along corridors clutching a doll to her chest and chasing a ball with much laughter and amusement. Her laughter was terrifying because it belonged to the past and it was only revived by a malign imagination, a yearning for what might have been but never was. (I gave you fair warning that this is what is known as popular literature despite my reluctance to betray any emotion.)
It must be said that the girl is not conscious of my presence. Were it otherwise, she would have someone to pray for and that would mean salvation. But I am fully conscious of her presence: through her I utter my cry of horror to existence. To this existence I love so dearly.
To return to the girl: the one luxury she permitted herself was a few sips of cold coffee before going to bed. She paid for this luxury by waking up with heartburn.
She rarely spoke (having little or nothing to say) but she loved sounds. Sounds were life. The night’s silence made her feel nervous. It was as if night were about to pronounce some fatal word. At night, cars seldom passed through Acre Street. When they did, the louder their horns the more she liked it. As if these fears were not enough, she was also terrified of catching some dreadful disease down below—that was something her aunt had taught her. Although her tiny ovules were all shrivelled. So hopelessly shrivelled. Her life was so monotonous that by the end of the day she could no longer remember what had happened that same morning. She mused in silence and the thought came to her: since I am, the solution is to be. The cockerel I mentioned earlier heralded yet another day. It sang of weariness. Speaking of poultry, the girl sometimes ate a hard-boiled egg in a snack-bar. Her aunt had always insisted that eggs were bad for the liver. That being so, she obediently became ill and suffered pains on the left side opposite the liver. For the girl was most impressionable. She believed in everything that existed and in everything non-existent as well. But she didn’t know how to embellish reality. For her, reality was too enormous to grasp. Besides, the word reality meant nothing to her. Nor to me, dear God.
As she slept, she often dreamed that her aunt was rapping her on the head. More surprisingly, she often dreamed about sex, she, who to all appearances was completely asexual. When she finally woke up, she was overcome by feelings of guilt without being able to explain why. Perhaps because everything that is pleasurable should be forbidden. Guilty and contented. Her doubts confirmed her sense of guilt and she mechanically recited three Hail Marys, Amen, Amen, Amen. She prayed but without God. She did not know Him, therefore He did not exist.
Leaving God aside, I have just discovered that reality made little sense to the girl. She felt much more at ease with the unreality of everyday life. She lived in slo-o-ow motion, a hare le-e-eaping through the a-a-air over hi-i-ill and da-a-ale, obscurity was her earth, obscurity was the inner core of nature.
She found consolation in being sad. Not desperate, for she was much too modest and simple to indulge in despair, but that indefinable quality associated with romantics. It goes without saying that she was neurotic. Neurosis sustained her. Dear God, neurosis counted for something: almost as good as crutches. Occasionally she wandered into the more fashionable quarters of the city and stood gazing at the shop windows displaying glittering jewels and luxurious garments in satin and silk—just to mortify the senses. The truth is that she needed to find herself and a little mortification helped.
On Sundays, she always woke up early in order to be able to spend more time doing absolutely nothing. The worst moment of all was late on Sunday afternoons when she would lapse into anxious meditation, the emptiness of barren Sunday. She sighed. She recalled her childhood with nostalgia—dried mandioca—and believed that she had been happy. In truth, no matter how bad one’s childhood may have been, it always sounds enchanted in recollection—how awful. The girl never complained about anything. She accepted things as they are—after all, who was responsible for organizing the land inhabited by men? Surely one day she would gain a place in the paradise reserved for misfits. Besides, in her case it simply isn’t a question of gaining Paradise. She is a misfit even in this world. I swear that nothing can be done for her. Believe me, I would help her if I could. I realize that in saying that my typist has a diseased body, I am saying something much more offensive than any obscenity.
(It’s as good as saying that a healthy dog is worth more.)
At this point, I must record one happy event. One distressing Sunday without mandioca, the girl experienced a strange happiness: at the quayside, she saw a rainbow. She felt something close to ecstasy and tried to retain the vision: if only she could see once more the display of fireworks she had seen as a child in Maceio. She wanted more, for it is true that when one extends a helping hand to the lower orders, they want everything else; the man on the street dreams greedily of having everything. He has no right to anything but wants everything. Wouldn’t you agree? There were no means within my power to produce that golden rain achieved with fireworks.
Should I divulge that she adored soldiers? She was mad about them. Whenever she caught sight of a soldier, she would think, trembling with excitement: is he going to murder me?
If the girl only knew that my own happiness stems from the deepest sorrow and that sorrow is an abortive form of happiness. Certainly, she was a contented creature despite the neurosis. The neurosis of battle.
Apart from her monthly visit to the cinema, she enjoyed another luxury. She lacquered her nails a bright scarlet. Unfortunately, she had bitten her nails to such an extent that most of the lacquer had disappeared, revealing the grime underneath.
And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity. Only later did she reflect with satisfaction: I am a typist and a virgin, and I like coca-cola. Only then did she get dressed, and spend the rest of the day passively enacting the role of being.
Perhaps I could enhance this story if I were to introduce some difficult technical terms? But that is the problem: this story has no technique, not even in matters of style. It has been written at random. Nothing would persuade me to contaminate with brilliant, mendacious words, a life as frugal as that of my typist. During the day, like everyone else, I make gestures that are unobserved even by me. One of my most unobserved gestures is this story, which comes out as it will, independent of me.
The typist lived in a kind of limbo, hovering between heaven and hell. She had never given any thought to the concept: ‘I am, therefore, I am.’ I suspect that she felt she had no right to do so, being a mere accident of nature. A foetus wrapped up in newspaper and thrown on to a rubbish dump. Are there thousands of others like her? Yes, thousands of others who are mere accidents of nature. And if one thinks about it carefully, aren’t we all mere accidents of nature? I have only escaped from a similar fate because I am a writer. Any action is also a fact. When I make contact with my spiritual forces, I find your God within myself. Why do I write? Can I explain? I simply don’t know. In fact, I sometimes think that I am not me. I seem to belong to a remote planet, I am such a stranger unto myself. Can this be me? I am horrified by this encounter with myself.
As I’ve already said, the girl from the North-east did not believe in death. She couldn’t believe in death—after all—was she not alive? She had long since forgotten the names of her father and mother, for her aunt had never mentioned them. (I am exploiting the written word with the utmost ease. This alarms me, for I am afraid of losing my sense of order and of plunging into an abyss resounding with cries and shrieks: the Hell of human freedom. But I shall continue.)
Every morning she switched on the transistor radio loaned by one of her room-mates, Maria da Penha. She switched it on as low as possible so as not to disturb the others, and she invariably tuned into Radio Clock, a channel that broadcast the correct time and educational programmes. There was no music, only a constant ping like drops of falling rain—a drop for every minute that passed. This channel took advantage of the pauses between each ping to broadcast commercials. She adored commercials.
It was the ideal programme for between each ping the announcer gave snippets of information that one day might stand her in good stead. This was how the girl learned, for example, that the Emperor Charlemagne was known as Carolus in his native land. Admittedly, she had never had any opportunity to make use of this information. But you never know. Patience always pays off in the end. Listening to the same programme, she also learned that the only animal that doesn’t crossbreed with its own offspring, is the horse.
-- That’s filth! she muttered to the transistor radio.
On another occasion, she heard the message: ‘Repent in Christ and He will give you great joy.’ So she decided to repent. Not quite knowing what she had to repent of, the girl from the North-east repented of everything. The preacher added that vengeance is a deadly sin. So she sought no revenge.
Yes, patience always pays off in the end. Seriously? The girl possessed what is known as inner life without knowing that she possessed it. She was nourished by her own entity, as if she were feeding off her own entrails. When she travelled to work, she behaved like a harmless lunatic. As the bus sped along, she daydreamed aloud and voiced the most extravagant dreams. Her dreams were empty on account of all that inner life, because they lacked the essential nucleus of any prior experience of—of ecstasy, let’s say. Most of the time, she possessed, without knowing it, the emptiness that replenishes the souls of saints. Was she a saint? It would seem so. The girl didn’t know that she was meditating, for the word meditation was unknown to her. I get the impression that her life was one long meditation about nothingness. Except that she needed others in order to believe in herself, otherwise she would become lost in the continuous, spiralling vacuum inside her. She tended to meditate while she typed, and this caused her to make even more mistakes than usual.
She indulged in certain little pleasures. On wintry nights, shivering from head to foot under a thin cotton sheet, she would read by candle-light the advertisements that she had cut out of old newspapers lying around the office. She collected newspaper advertisements, and pasted them into an album. The advertisement she treasured most of all was in colour: it advertised a face cream for women with complexions so very different from her own sallow skin. Blinking furiously (a fatal tic that she had recently acquired), she imagined the pleasure of possessing such luxuries. The cream looked so appetizing that, were she to find enough money to buy it, she wouldn’t be foolish. Never mind her skin! She would eat the cream, she would, in large spoonfuls straight from the jar. She was needing to put on some flesh, for her body was drier than a half-empty sack of toasted breadcrumbs. With time, she had become transformed into mere living matter in its primary state. Perhaps this was her protection from the enormous temptation to be unhappy and to feel sorry for herself. (When I consider that I might have been born her—and why not?—I shudder. The fact that I am not her strikes me as being a cowardly escape. I feel remorse, as I explained in one of my titles for this book.)
In any case, the future looked brighter. The future, at least, had the advantage of not being the present, and the worse can always take a turn for the better. There wasn’t a trace of human misery in the girl. She carried within her an aura of innocence. For, strange though it may seem, she had faith. Composed of fine organic matter, she existed. Pure and simple. And what about me? The only thing that can be said about me is that I am breathing.
- p. 40: . . . she had never received gifts from anyone. It didn’t worry her for she needed so little. One day, however, she saw something that, for one brief moment, she dearly wanted: it was a book that Senhor Raimundo, who was fond of literature, had left on the table. The book was entitled The Shamed and Oppressed. The girl remained pensive. Perhaps for the very first time she had established her social class. She thought and thought and thought! She decided that no one had ever really oppressed her and that everything that happened to her was inevitable. It was futile trying to struggle. Why struggle? I ask myself: will she one day experience love and its farewell? Will she one day experience love and its deceptions? Will she experience love’s rapture in her own modest way? Who can tell? How can one disguise the simple fact that the entire world is somewhat sad and lonely? The girl from the North-east was lost in the crowd. She caught the bus in Maua Square. It was bitterly cold and she had no warm clothing to protect her from the wind. But there were the cargo ships that filled her with yearning for who knows what. This happened only on the rare occasion. Most of the time she walked out of her gloomy office into the fading light, and noted that every day at the same hour, it was exactly the same hour. Nothing could be done about the great clock that marked time within time.
- pp. 43-44: -- If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your name?
-- Bea, she was forced to repeat.
-- Gosh, it sounds like the name of a disease . . . a skin disease.
-- I agree but it’s the name my mother gave me because of a vow she made to Our Lady of Sorrows if I should survive. For the first year of my life, I wasn’t called anything because I didn’t have a name. I’d have preferred to go on being called nothing instead of having a name that nobody has ever heard of, yet it seems to suit me—she paused for a moment to catch her breath before adding shyly and a little down-hearted—for as you can see, I’m still here . . . so that’s that.
-- Even in the backwoods of Paraiba, fulfilling a vow is a question of honour.
Neither of them knew much about walking out together. They walked under the heavy rain and lingered in front of an ironmongers that boasted a wide selection of metal tubes, containers, nuts and bolts. Macabea, afraid that the silence between them might be a warning of imminent separation, remarked to her newly-found boy-friend:
-- I love nuts and bolts. What about you?
The second time they met, the rain had settled into a steady drizzle and soaked them to the skin. Without even as much as holding hands, they walked under the drizzle, the water streaming like tears down Macabea’s face.
The third time they met – Well now, if it isn’t raining? The youth, suddenly dropping that superficial veneer of politeness that his stepfather had inculcated with some effort, snapped at her:
-- All you seem to bring is the rain!
-- I’m sorry.
She was already so infatuated, however, that she could no longer do without him in her hunger for love.
On one of the occasions they met, she finally plucked up enough courage to ask him his name.
-- Olimpico de Jesus Moreira Chaves—he lied, because his real surname was simply Jesus, a clear indication that he was illegitimate. The youth had been brought up by his stepfather, who had taught him how to ingratiate himself with people in order to get his own way and how to pick up girls.
-- I don’t understand your name—she said.
Macabea pretended to be very inquisitive while concealing the fact that she had never understood anything the first time round. Aggressive as a fighting cock, Olimpico bristled at her foolish questions, to which he could provide no answers. He retorted impatiently:
-- I know what it means, but I’m not telling you!
-- That’s all right, that’s all right, that’s all right . . . people don’t have to understand what names mean. She understood what desire meant—although she didn’t know that she understood. That was how it was: she was starving but not for food, it was a numb sort of pain that rose from her lower abdomen, making the nipples of her breast quiver and her empty arms starved of any embrace came out in goose pimples. She became overwrought and it was painful to live. At such moments, she would shake with nerves and her workmate Gloria would rush to get her a glass of water with sugar.
- pp. 46-52: I should mention that Macabea had never received a letter in her life. And any telephone calls in the office were always for the boss or for Gloria. Macabea once asked Olimpico if he wouldn’t care to telephone her at the office. He made a crushing reply:
-- Who wants to listen to you talking nonsense on the telephone?
When Olimpico insisted that one day he would become a politician in his native state of Paraiba, she was astounded and thought to herself: when we get married does that mean that I shall be a politician as well? She didn’t fancy the idea because the word ‘politician’ sounded quite unpleasant. (As I explained, this is not a story about abstractions. Later, I shall probably return to the unnamed sensations, perhaps even the sensations of God Himself. But Macabea’s story must be told or else I shall explode.)
On the rare occasion when the couple actually held a conversation, they invariably discussed food: flour, salted beef, dried meat, brown sugar and molasses. These commodities symbolized their past and made them forget their unhappy childhood because in retrospect, memories of childhood are always bitter-sweet and even provoke a certain nostalgia. Olimpico and Macabea could have been mistaken for brother and sister, a factor—I’ve only now realized—that would appear to rule out any possibility of their marrying. I’m not sure that they were aware of this factor. Will they get married? I still don’t know. All I know is that they were both ingenuous and altogether insignificant.
No, I’m mistaken. It’s now clear that Olimpico was by no means ingenuous, however much the universal victim. It’s now clear to me that he was wicked to the core. He enjoyed taking his revenge. Revenge gave him an enormous satisfaction and the strength to go on living. He had more strength than Macabea, whose guardian angel had deserted her.
In the end, what had to happen would happen. Meantime nothing whatsoever happened, for neither of them knew how to invent happenings. They sat on something free of charge: a bench in the public park. Sitting there, they were indistinguishable from the rest of nothingness. For the greater glory of God.
He – Well.
She – Well what?
He – I only said well!
She – But well what?
He – Let’s change the subject. You’ll never understand.
She – Understand what?
He – Mother of God! Macabea, let’s change the subject at once!
She – What shall we talk about then?
He – About you.
She – Me!
He – Why the fuss? Aren’t you a human being? Human beings talk about other human beings.
She – Forgive me, but I don’t believe that I am all that human.
He – Everybody’s human, dear God!
She – I’ve never got used to the idea.
He – Never got used to what?
She – I can’t explain.
He – So?
She – So what?
He – Look, I’m going. You’re a dead loss.
She – I can’t help being a dead loss. What do you want me to do about it?
He – You talk a load of rubbish. Try to talk about something . . . anything.
She – I don’t know what to talk about.
He – You don’t know what?
She – Eh?
He – Look, you’re getting on my nerves. Let’s just shut up. Agreed?
She – Whatever you say.
He – You’re really a hopeless case. As for me, I’ve been called so many things that I’ve turned into myself. In the backwoods of Paraiba everybody has heard of Olimpico. And one day the whole world is going to be talking about me.
She – Really?
He – Isn’t that what I’m telling you! Don’t you believe me?
She – Of course I believe you, I believe you, I believe you. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.
When she was a little girl, Macabea had seen a house painted white and pink with a back-yard that boasted a well and water-clock. It was exciting to look down the well. And so this became Macabea’s great ambition: to possess a house one day with its own well. Except that she didn’t know how to set about realizing her ambition so she asked Olimpico:
-- Can you tell me if anybody can buy a well?
-- Look here, hasn’t it dawned on you that there aren’t any answers to the questions you ask?
She stood there leaning her head to one side like a dove when it’s feeling sad.
Once when he talked about getting rich, she asked him:
-- Are you sure you’re not having visions?
-- Go to blazes! You don’t trust anybody. Only the fact that you’re a virgin stops me from cursing you.
-- Don’t get upset! They say getting upset can affect your stomach.
-- Upset, my foot! Make no mistake, I’m on the way to success. You’re the one who should be worrying!
-- I don’t have any worries. I don’t need to be successful.
This was the first time she had ever spoken of herself to Olimpico de Jesus, accustomed as she was to forgetting about herself. Macabea never broke her routine. She was afraid of inventing situations.
-- Did I tell you that they said on the radio that a man who was also a mathematician, wrote a book called Alice in Wonderland? They also discussed elgebra. What does elgebra mean?
-- Only queers are interested in things like that, men who’ve turned into pansies. Excuse the word queer. That’s something no decent girl should know about.
-- On the radio they discuss ‘culture’ and use difficult words. For instance, what does ‘electronic’ mean?
-- I know what it means but I’m not telling you.
-- I love to hear the pings as the minutes pass: tic-tac-tic-tac-tic-tac. Radio Clock says that it broadcasts the correct time, culture and commercials. What does culture mean?
-- Culture is culture, he replied grudgingly. Why don’t you get off my back?
-- There are so many things I don’t understand. What does ‘income per head’ mean?
-- That’s easy, it has something to do with medicine.
-- What does Count of Bonfim Street mean? What’s a Count? Is that the same as a prince?
-- A Count is a Count, for God’s sake! Besides, I don’t need to know the correct time. I wear a watch.
What he didn’t tell Macabea was that he’d stolen it in a washroom at the factory: another worker had left it over the sink while he was washing his hands. Nobody suspected that Olimpico was very skilful when it came to stealing: needless to say, he didn’t wear the watch at work.
-- Do you know the best thing I’ve learned? They said on Radio Clock that we should be glad to be alive. And I am. I also heard some lovely music and I almost wept.
-- Was it a samba?
-- I believe it was. It was sung by a man called Caruso who they said died a long time ago. His voice was so gentle that it was almost painful to listen to. The music was called Una Furtiva Lacrima. I don’t know why they couldn’t say lagrima the way it’s said in Brazil.
Una Furtiva Lacrima had been the only really beautiful thing in Macabea’s life. Drying her tears, she tried to sing what she had heard. But Macabea’s voice was as rough and tuneless as the rest of her body. When she heard her own voice, she began to weep. She was weeping for the first time and had never imagined that there was so much water in her eyes. She wept and blew her nose, no longer knowing why she was weeping. She wasn’t weeping because of the way she lived: never having known any other way of life, she accepted the fact that her life was ‘so’—just like Macabea’s herself.
I also believe she was weeping because the music helped her to perceive that there were other ways of feeling; that there were more delicate forms of existence and certain spiritual refinements. She perceived lots of things that she could not understand. Did the word aristocracy, for example, mean some grace that had been granted? Most likely. If that were the case, so be it. She penetrated the vast world of music that required no understanding. Her heart exploded. In the company of Olimpico she suddenly became courageous and, plunging into the mysterious depths of her own being, she said:
-- I’m sure I can sing that music. La-la-la-la-la.
-- You look like a deaf-mute trying to sing. Your voice is like a broken reed.
-- That’s because I’m singing for the first time in my life.
She was sure that lacrima instead of the Portuguese lagrima was an error on the part of the programme announcer. The existence of another language had never occurred to Macabea, and she was convinced that in Brazil one could only speak Brazilian. Apart from the cargo ships that she could watch on the waterfront every Sunday, she only possessed this music. The ultimate substratum of the music was her only vibration.
The flirtation with Olimpico remained lukewarm. He told her:
-- After my sainted mother died, there was nothing to keep me in Paraiba.
-- What did she die of?
-- Of nothing. Her health gave out.
Olimpico concerned himself with important things but Macabea only noticed unimportant things such as herself. Just as she noticed a gate that was rusting, twisted, creaking and with its paint peeling off; a gate that led to a number of outhouses that all looked alike and were grouped around a villa. She had observed all this from the bus. The villa was numbered 106 and on a plaque she read the name ‘Sunrise’. An attractive name that inspired confidence.
Macabea found Olimpico very knowledgeable about things. He told her things that she had never heard of before. Once he told her:
-- A person’s face is the most important thing because the face betrays what that person is thinking: your face is that of somebody who has just tasted a sour apple. I can’t abide sad faces. Stop looking so mournful—then he came out with a difficult word—he said: try to change your demeanour.
She replied in dismay:
-- I can’t do anything about my face . . .
Last edited by HERO; 12-10-2011 at 12:41 PM.