The Hour of the Star  – ★★★★★
This thought-provoking novella by Clarice Lispector was translated from Portuguese by Benjamin Moser. It is narrated by one man Rodrigo S.M. who tells the tale of Macabéa, an ordinary girl from the northeast, who tries to make ends meet living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The novella is very unusual because, before the narrator gets to the crux of the story, he spends quite some time musing on the task at hand – how to write this story (for example, should the writer undergo some physical transformation before writing?), and whether there is any point in doing so since fiction may never capture the real truth. Despite its short length, the book tells an immersive and emotional story, while the author, through her narrator, also meditates on human existence and the meaning of life.
“...It’s a story I want to be cold” [Lispector, 1977: 5], states the narrator, but it still manages to be quite emotional. The narrator paints a very unflattering image of Macabéa and her situation, but Macabéa herself does not notice that, and even if she did, she would not have minded. She is a typist, with a gaze of “someone with a broken wing” [Lispector, 1977: 18], who lives in the slums of Rio. She does not have anyone in the world apart from her acquaintances who try to take advantage of her. She does not have looks, money, prospects (a stable job) or a future. She has her poor health, traumatic childhood and a few rented meters to sleep on. By not recognising her own pitiful state and herself, she remains happy. She is happy because she is alive. She likes listening to a radio, watching a movie once in a while and eating sweet things (very rarely). The narrator is amazed by this, and he is amazed by her. Through Macabéa, he wants to be more than he is, and to capture the truth which is beyond him [Lispector, 1977: 12].
One of the ways to understand this novella is to think about contradictions and opposites – the man, the narrator Rodrigo, and the young girl, Macabéa (the narrator’s creation), seem to have few things in common: they are of different sex, social standing, financial position and views of the world. Through the delving into the psyche of Macabéa, the narrator tries to understand himself, the world, and to glimpse into what he believes to be the ultimate truth. Inwardly, he may be repulsed by people like Macabéa, but he also worships and loves her (a contradiction). Inwardly, he may also be envying Macabéa’s ignorance of the world, as well as her faith and her belief. Her ignorance is partly what makes her happy when the society thinks that she should not be. Life is as good or as bad as other people tell you because it all comes down to one’s mind state, perception and belief. Macabéa is a nobody, a very inconsequential and invisible-to-others human being, and, therefore, she is “free”. She leads that kind of existence where solitude and sadness are a luxury, but her innocence and ignorance are her shields, and the breath she takes is her sword. The narrator Rodrigo tries to understand her state, “condition” and her place in the world – how can she live her life so aimlessly? Rodrigo comes to the realisation that her breath, innocence, ignorance and fragility are key. Rodrigo then tries to redeem himself through her in some vague way.
Some say that the narrator’s observations, which at times interrupt the flow of the tale, get in a way of telling Macabéa’s tale. But, if we view this novella as comprising of two main characters – the narrator and Macabéa, this criticism is a bit unfounded. The two characters both have the goals to accomplish in the story, and they both follow their own character paths. This is the story of Macabéa, but it is also the story of how to pen a novel – a story of one narrator who grapples with his own identity and existential crises. He has his own unique and complex relationship with Macabéa in the story, and Macabéa becomes his unlikely hero. He is her and he is not her, he is responsible for her and he is not responsible for her. Both are “interchangeable” [Lispector, 1977: 14], and yet he “does not have anything to do with the girl” [Lispector, 1977: 16]. He imagined her and yet she may represent hundreds of girls in Rio. The narrator talks to us, and philosophises on truth and knowledge. “Everyone alive knows, even if they don’t know they know” [Lispector, 1977: 4]; “when I prayed I achieved an emptiness of soul – and that emptiness is all I can ever have” [Lispector, 1977: 6]; and “all of us are one” [Lispector, 1977: 4], muses the narrator.
This unusual novella is emotional, philosophically-deep, brave and inventive. It is brave because it uses an unusual format and style to tell its story and to convey its messages. It tells a story of poor and damaged people in Brazil, but it looks at them through a different and unusual lens, while also making indirect observations on the unjust nature of society and on the conditions of women. The narrator’s insights are interwoven in the narrative to such an extent that every meditation on existence and life strikes powerfully home.