Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Una furtiva lagrima

Gregory Rabassa, whose translations - I'm told - is as good as the law, and can be bought with eyes closed, and who did not translate my copy, talks about Clarice Lispector as "that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." At once I have visions of a temptress in black and white, who despite the monochromes spills lascivious colours into the umgebung, and who simultaneously writes down frantic snatches between drawing out puffs of smoke. Being a libertine and erudite together is unorthodox; and so is poverty that is not poor, as Mme. Cixous would point out. But a lot of what Marlene Dietrich, Virginia Woolf, and Marilyn Monroe represented, was unorthodox, innit? As I struggle to write about The Hour of the Star moments after I shut the book, I wonder if I could reproduce Lispector's (or is it the narrator's?) every line and pass them off as my very own condition-of-existence.

As for me, I'm only truthful when I'm alone. When I was a little boy I thought that from one minute to the next I could fall off the face of the earth. Why don't clouds fall, since everything else does? Because gravity is less than the strength of the air that keeps them up there. Clever, right? Yes, but one day they fall as rain. That is my revenge.

There's something about Macabéa, the protagonist. When you read about her, you cannot imagine that you were capable of such pity. Our generations have learnt to distill the pity of war before being born. Pity and sorrow for a fellow human, is what Rodrigo S.M., the narrator, calls a luxury. Macabea is oblivious to her unhappiness, the innocent victim of life, as opposed to her narrator who is only too alive to his failures, and sadly knows too much. He writes about the tragedy of being alive, and the comedy and farce of existence; Macabea lives through all of them, without realising them at all, and despite myself, I think about Borges; Jorge Luis Borges, whose writings are omni-present, beyond creation, floating somewhere in the universe, in the worlds of Tlon and Uqbar. Nevertheless Rodrigo paints no idealistic picture, and though the image of Borges looms at the back, the imposing features do not make an entrance into the poor, bedraggled, TB-infested world of Macabea. And if the disease makes one think of the naive but gallant Hans Castorp, and the brave Joachim, Rodrigo would pen an ironic utterance on his protagonist's behalf, contrasting the rarefied air of the Zauberberg, with the slums of Rio. 

This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It's an unfinished book because it's still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It's a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.

L is a Mexican who wrote down the name of Clarice Lispector in a little piece of paper in black ink and bold letters, with a few other names, and then pointed to her and said, "Read her, it will change your life." There is something about appearing as a lost, unhappy soul even among friends that invites concern, but A hora da estrela was perhaps the best advice in a piece of paper I've ever received. Frankly, there's nothing life-changing about the 75 odd pages of the book. After you spend a long day working under the sun, and then seek refuge in a corner of a dark cafe, with the drone of the AC beside you affirming your views on the futility of love ("Sex is the consolation you have when you can't have love"), the last thing you would want is a printed word confirmation of how life sucks. The Hour of the Star does that unflinchingly. It reminds you yet again, how every story ever written in the world is one of affliction. Moments before Macabea died, she learnt how unhappy her life was without her knowing it, how deprived she had been without her realising it. Just as she loses her innocence, she dies. The Prince of Darkess won. Finally the coronation. My friend S tells me that life, not death, is a great leveler. Rodrigo says, death is an encounter with oneself... The best thing is still this : not to die, because dying is insufficient, it does not complete me, I who need so much.

Precisely three weeks ago Mahashweta Devi told us that every individual's fundamental right is to dream. Today Clarice Lispector, through a book for which she had envisaged thirteen titles, told me about the right to scream. I have not tried it yet, but tonight I know about my luxury of life, my luxury to mourn, and to feel sad. With it, the luxury of singing the blues, of swooning on listening to Chopin, of the allegro and the aria, and of understanding this story as the imminence in those bells that almost-almost ring. Clarice has walked a long way from Ukraine, the neighbours of the land of green plums, to the rugged ridges of Brazil, and reminds us a little of Herta Mueller's hapless and struggling young people. Like Virginia Woolf who could be Lily, and Clarissa, and Mrs. Ramsay all at once while being Orlando for four hundred years; like Marlene Dietrich, the angel and the devil together; like Elizabeth Bishop, friend, translator-translator, lover; we all intertwine and flip through the pages of this book, with Macabea, who is not us, but whom we want to tuck in bed, and give hot soup, who breaks our heart with her innocence and who dies in silence. Una furtiva lagrima, or a furtive tear. 

And now -- now all I can do is light a cigarette and go home. My God, I just remembered that we die. But - but me too?! 
Don't forget that for now it's strawberry season.

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