My final take on Brazilian women writers this month falls under the approximate label ‘short stories’, although one is a collection of short stories, one is a fragment of a novel and the third is an allegory.
Clarice Lispector is an old passion of mine, but I’ve read her novels rather than her short stories. This beautiful collection of the Complete Stories is published by Penguin Modern Classics (translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, this was well received, before the whole scandal about Benjamin Moser erupted two weeks ago, when another Lispector translator Magdalena Edwards accused him of colonising both Dodson’s prose as well as her own). It is a massive volume, so of course I didn’t try to read all of it in one go, or even read the stories chronologically. I dipped in here and there, attracted by titles or trying to find narrators (usually women) at different stages of their life.
Although precisely, exquisitely observed, there is something as ancient as the hills about the stories, a sense of inevitability. In Obsession, a married woman who has an affair with a difficult, manipulative man called Daniel, leaves her husband, moves in with her lover, finds out love is not all it’s cracked up to be, but struggles to let go of her idealised notions of him and of love.
I never smiled, I had unlearned joy. Yet I wouldn’t have removed myself from his life even to be happy. I was not, nor was I unhappy. I had so incorporate myself into the situation that I no longer received stimuli and sensations that would allow me to modify it… He needed me! I repeated a thousand times afterward, feeling that I had received a beautiful, enormous gift, too large for my arms and for my desire.
Most of the early stories are about the relationship between men and women, and at least have a semblance of a structured narrative. A young girl discovers something about male double standards in the very short story Jimmy and I, but decides not to worry about it and enjoy her life instead. In Interrupted Story a girl is attracted to a sad, self-destructive type of man and wants to rescue him… but life smacks her in the face. In Happy Birthday a family gathers around the eighty-nine-year-old matriarch, who is silently disappointed in them all, but also reminds them uncomfortably of their own mortality.
Other stories are more wilfully experimental. Horses as metaphors romp through the pages of Dry Sketch of Horses, representing ‘what is best in the human being’, still and statuesque during the day, released from burdens at night. Mysterious rituals and revels with a charismatic androgynous divine creature give way to disillusionment the next day in Where Were You at Night’. The Smallest Woman in the World is an extraordinary story of colonialism and racism (and an indictment of anthropology when it studies ‘exotic cultures’ like butterflies pinned to a table). Marcle Pretre, hunter and man of the world, comes upon a tribe of tiny pygmies in Central Congo, including the fully-grown, 18 inch pregnant woman ‘dark as a monkey’, whom he chooses to call Little Flower. She becomes a bit of a media sensation when her picture appears in the newspapers, but she remains unknowable and confuses the explorer with her laughter, her very different definition of love and her joy at not being devoured, that most perfect of feelings, the secret goal of an entire life.
Lispector seldom gives instructions on how to read her stories. They lurch like a runaway tram between realism and the fantastical, between universal and very detailed, very particular observation. Like with Shirley Jackson, there is always something slightly off about the stories, something lurking in their depths. Nothing is as straightforward as it might appear.
The extract from the novel Perhaps an Animal by Natalia Borges Polesso (transl. Sophie Lewis) is in a way a reprise of the Lispector story Jimmy and I, with its conclusion that it’s best to live like an animal, content in what you get every day and not daring to want too much. A poor girl who has come to Sao Paolo to work but is struggling to make ends meet and resorts to eating food out of bins. She encounters a boy who wants to become a woman, who tells her earnestly:
There’re times it’s good to be an animal. I think we hang on to this idea that humans and humanity are always the best thing to be. What we’re really talking about is kindness – except it’s not always like that. Humanity is far from being a good thing. Look around. If everyone was an animal, at least no one would feel guilty, No one would be bearing grudges, no one would be judging.
If Polesso seems to have affinity with the more realistic side of Lispector’s fiction, Mariana Torres’ Roots (transl. Lisa Dillman) hearkens more to the surreal Lispector. This is a charming, sad little allegory about displacement. The narrator was ‘born in Brazil because everything grows in that soil’. The day she is born her father plants the seeds of an apple he was eating and a tree grows in the same rhythm as the roots on the soles of the girl’s feet. When the family moves to Rio, they prune and take the tree with them; both it and the girl acclimatize to life in the city, but her body becomes covered with shoots and she can no longer go to school. So the family decides to move to the other side of the world (somewhere in Europe), again with the tree in tow. In the new city where nothing grows, where ‘the earth is brown, hard and dry, it’s impossible to plant anything’, the girl learns to fake it but ‘the truth is that at night the scars on the soles of my feet burned’.