Elusiveness of Existence: The Hour of the Star

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

Although Clarice Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star (translated by Benjamin Moser), is a slim volume, no less than the creation of the cosmos serves as its opening. Author Rodrigo S. M. (the book’s narrator), unable to decide where he should begin recounting the tragic tale of his young character, Macabéa, chooses prehistory. It’s all the more a remarkable place to start, given that the narrator emphasizes how insignifcant Macabéa is: she could be readily replaced by any other girl like her. But in Lispector’s contemplative work, this signals the novel’s philosophical concerns with poverty, identity, and existence itself. Because if Macabéa is practically interchangeable with countless other poor, northeastern girls of Brazil, she also symbolizes them and becomes something akin to an archetype whose ancient roots are difficult to pinpoint. Rodrigo seems to ask: Have girls like her existed since life has?

“Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”

From this perspective, it’s little wonder that Rodrigo suffers as he writes about Macabéa’s humble life. Lispector’s dichotomous characters illustrate both the difficulty in truly understanding another’s existence and with communication.1 In many ways her opposite (well-educated, clearly older, and affluent), the narrator anxiously strives to pare down his linguistic excesses, because they don’t suit Macabéa’s circumstances. Yet, Rodrigo often fails to retain this simplicity as he expounds on his writing process or as he struggles to explain Macabéa’s “delicate and vague existence”. His attempt to bring himself closer to the virginal Macabéa’s level—by swearing off sex and sports—is undermined as he dines on fruit and sips on chilled wine, luxuries unavailable to her. Here, Lispector entertains the possibilities of empathy while delineating its boundaries. Though pained by his efforts to relate Macabéa’s tale, Rodrigo acknowledges that he writes because he “has questions and no answers”. Macabéa, in contrast, questions nothing and is happy simply because she believes, though not in any specific deity, person, or thing. Rodgrigo’s attempts to define this young woman and her elusive grace seems only to cause him to question himself instead (“Am I a monster?”).2

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

As the unlovely Macabéa’s tale finally takes shape, her existence proves to be as undernourished as her body is: orphaned as a child and suffering from rickets, raised by an indifferent aunt, and transplanted from her rural town to Rio de Janeiro, where her life (once her aunt dies) is a lonely one. This young lady’s life is also circumscribed by its material lack. Possessing only three years of education, listening to the radio is a source of unexpected beauty (when she first hears opera) and confusion (when radio hosts discuss unfamilar words/concepts such as “culture”). Lispector’s point that she resembles thousands of girls like her, underscored by Rodrigo’s ineffective guilt that he should do something for this fictional girl, makes a grim point about the haves and have nots.3 Unfortunately for Macabéa, no forthcoming rescue or deeper connection forged with another occurs. Although she briefly attracts the attentions of Olímpico (another northeasterner), he leaves her for her more attractive coworker, Glória. Glória’s guilt prompts her to help Macabéa in some way, but this assistance unintentionally imperils Macabéa. Without revealing too many details, Macabea’s life explodes into that of a “thousand-pointed star” as she departs it, leaving behind Rodrigo—an author powerless to save her—attempting to divert himself from thinking about his own eventual demise.

Summary

The Hour of the Star recalls a certain adage about judging books by their appearance. As someone new to Lispector’s work,4 I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a slim book (under 80 pages), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this serious meditation on life, death, poverty, writing, etc., complicating a seemingly simple story. The Hour of the Star is a must for a thinking readers, as it gives its audience much to mull over long after its cover is closed.

NOTES:


  1. In Macabéa’s case, she often is misunderstood or unheard even when speaking quite clearly (eg, “As for the future.”). Also of interest, Rodrigo reveals here that he lived in the northeast as a boy. 
  2. Lispector can be somewhat playful in considering identity. Rodrigo, in observing that no one would miss a poor girl like Macabéa, realizes he, too, could be replaced—but only by a man, since a woman “would make it all weepy and maudlin”. Certainly, it’s an amusing idea in an unsentimental novel written by a woman, one that also permits  Lispector to draw a line between herself and Rodrigo and subtly indicate that, though they’re both from the northeast, they are not one and the same. 
  3. In keeping with Lispector’s desire for empathy (whatever its limits may be), Rodrigo encourages wealthy and middle readers to step outside themselves and attempt to experience her life. He assumes poor readers will need not do so. 
  4. This novel appeared on several recommendation lists associated with #witmonth, the month (August) dedicated to reading works by women in translation. 

On Reading Women in Translation

And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language.

On Reading Women in Translation. Text by Rita E. GouldI think the first translated book I consciously chose to buy, a book I knew beforehand was translated, was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen). It was by no means the first text (either prose or poetry) I’d read in translation, of course. As a young child, I read Pippi Longstocking, likely unaware that Astrid Lindgren wrote it in Swedish.1 As a tween (or thereabouts), I understood the classic tales I read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology were written in Greek or Latin originally, though I didn’t appreciate what translation entailed. Through my studies, my awareness of translated works grew and I gained insight into how translation might affect a text’s meaning and the reliability of interpreting it.2 And of course, that also meant I bought many translated works as a student. What differentiated Esquivel’s novel from these other works, however, was that it was (then) a contemporary novel I selected for leisure reading. It had not been assigned reading, as both Wislawa Symborzka’s poems and a heavily abridged version of Les Misérables initially had been. It was not yet a “classic” work that significantly influenced/shaped literature or even a book that a sibling discarded.3 And the reason I purchased this book had less to with it being a well-regarded translated novel and more to do with it being a book everyone seemed to love…that just happened to be translated from another language. It’s this latter distinction that strikes me as important.

I’ve made a point to include translated novels in my reading recently, because (as I observed last year) I realized that I typically overlooked such books in the past. Expanding my reading horizons remains important to me, but I’d be mistaken in not acknowledging that most translated novels generally tend to be well written. For publishers to undertake the risk associated with printing a translated novel, that novel must achieve a certain level of acclaim or popularity for people to champion its translation. My experience of attending a twitter chat focused on reading women in translation was enlightening: so many people passionately recommended novels they’d read, attesting to how great, insightful, or thought provoking these books were.4 And I think it’s this promise of remarkable writing that compelled me to read more women’s writing in translation. Two (very different) favorites emerged from those recommendations: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus). While I can’t claim to deeply love every translated work I’ve read since (personal tastes vary, after all), I generally found reading them all rewarding.

But there is one remaining thought that haunts me when I consider reading women in translation, works that one day may be hailed as classics. As I’ve selected books to read or discuss during Women in Translation Month, I found myself thinking about what my intellectual life would be without the many translated works I’ve read. Losing The Odyssey alone would leave a huge literary crater: Neither The Aeneid nor The Penelopiad would exist without it. Translated works shape how we think and how we in turn write just as much as works written in our native language(s) do. I cannot help but wonder what deeper insights we might be missing when we bypass these works. And given how infrequently women’s writing is translated, I suspect that difference here could be significant. It’s among the reasons I intend to continue reading women in translation year-round as well as rate, recommend, and (when I can) review translated works written by women so that I can help publishers and fellow readers see what they’re missing. And the more often we all do so, the more available these excellent works will become to everyone.

NOTES:


  1. At that rather young age, I treated title pages, the locations where both authors and translators get mentioned, as filler to be skipped past quickly. 
  2. Pun intended. 
  3. One of the advantages of older siblings is that their discarded books become your books years before anyone would think to hand you a copy. Mythology was over my head in some places, but I love and appreciate it more and more every time I read it. 
  4. In this case, the 2016 Women Writers Network twitter chat for #witmonth. 

Loneliness and Grief in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen

“I got dressed to begin another day. Over and over, we begin again.”

The heart of the home truly is the kitchen for the young protagonist of Banana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen (translated by Megan Backus). University student Mikage Sakurai loves kitchens, which become her refuge when the death of her grandmother making her an orphan twice over.[*] Stunned by her utter solitude (“It’s total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos.”), she only can sleep next to the humming refrigerator. Other obligations also press on her. While her grandmother left her money,[†] she nonetheless must downsize her apartment to stretch her funds. Still grief-stricken, the thought of moving and house hunting paralyzes her. Fortunately, Mikage also inherits her grandmother’s friendship with Yuichi Tanabe. Yuichi, a younger university student, works part-time at the floral shop her grandmother frequented. He and his mother, Eriko, offer a much needed respite by opening their home to Mikage, complete with a beautiful kitchen (“It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight”).

Grief, Connection, and Magic

Yoshimoto’s novel (as well as its novella companion “Moonlight Shadow”)[‡] contemplates grief and loneliness with a delicate touch. While these emotions predominate, they are offset by moments of joy and connection. Yoshimoto uses light and dark imagery symbolically to reinforce these feelings: in the novel’s second half, “the telephone was glowing” in Yuichi’s mind whereas Mikage felt the line to Yuichi was submerged in deep, dark water, respectively suggesting his need for her companionship and her recognition of his grief. Part of the novel’s charm in negotiating such difficult topics involves its subtle use of magical realism that confers an almost fairy-tale quality to the story. Yuichi appears at just the right moment to offer Mikage a place to live while she sorts out her affairs. Both young people share a remarkable dream that takes place in the grandmother’s now empty kitchen, in which Yuichi implores Mikage to stay at his family’s apartment. Mikage even intuits which hotel room belongs to Yuichi before scaling the wall to deliver him katsudon. (This latter example also represents a brilliant gender role reversal, as Mikage plays—albeit comically—the traditionally male role of rescuer for a distressed Yuichi.)

Katsudon
You had me at katsudon. (Yōfū Katsudon [Western-style pork cutlet on rice] at Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Siriusplot at Japanese Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.)

Transformations

However magical her delivery may be, Yoshimoto does not shield her characters from pain. Eriko explains hers (and the novel’s) philosophy to Mikage: we must experience “true despair” to understand joy. Mikage also comes to accept that, even when we are with others, we are always alone. While she despairs that we’re “always defeated”, this knowledge lets her live more fully. Grief, therefore, is transformative in Kitchen. Having discovered a passion for cooking while living with the Tanabes, Mikage leaves university and successfully embarks on a cooking career despite her limited qualifications. Eriko’s own experience of grief literally changes her. Watching his wife slowly succumb to cancer forced Eriko to understand that “the world didn’t exist for [his] benefit”.[§] Becoming aware that he disliked being a man and realizing he would never love again, Eriko transitioned to a woman and opened a gay nightclub,[**] thereby straddling roles of provider and nurturer. Her story essentially serves as a loose guide for Mikage who also bridges these roles: cooking is her profession but it is one that nurtures.

The kitchen, of course, serves as an extended metaphor throughout this novel, representing that which sustains people through terrible loss, both in terms of sustenance (food, nourishment) and refuge. Kitchen creates this space as a haven for healing and connection, perhaps even new beginnings. And it’s this uplifting spirit that makes Kitchen a story that satisfies indeed.

NOTES:

[*] Mikage’s grandparents raised her after her parents died. Her grandfather subsequently died while she was in junior high school. Hence, she’s doubly orphaned by losing two sets of guardians.

[†] Discovering an orphaned character who isn’t destitute is a pleasure.

[‡] “Moonlight Shadow” (also translated by Megan Backus) typically accompanies Kitchen. My focus here is on the larger work.

[§] My pronoun usage mirrors that of the novel, using female for post-transition and male pronouns for pre-transition Eriko (formerly called Yugi).

[**] It’s worth observing that most characters seem to respect Eriko’s gender identity, even though it’s mentioned on occasion that Eriko is “really a man”. Given that Eriko’s fate is common for transgender women, a content warning is appropriate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Women in Translation for #WITmonth 2017

Supporting Women in Translation month signals that the reading public wants different voices and more choices to read.

Last year (late July 2016), I learned about Women in Translation month when the #women_writers Twitter chat featured Meytal Radzinski, founder of this movement (you can find the chat highlights here). As rave reviews and recommendations for books I hadn’t yet read or even heard about, I became very conscious of having a reading blind spot. I certainly read several translated works over the years, and women writers were among their numbers[*]. Some I’d read as part of my coursework (poet Anna Akhmatova among them), others (classic or more recent) because they were sufficiently famous to warrant attention (Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen).

But I hadn’t given thought much about how few books are translated into English and, of these books, how few are written by women.[†] This simple observation made me realize how much I was missing, not just in terms of good stories (many works translated are widely respected), but in the experiences reading provides. Reading from diverse sources broadens our horizons, allows us to contemplate viewpoints not our own—preventing us from living in a complacent echo chamber and helping us become more empathetic people. Insight into other lives and other cultures—or just an amazing tale, all are great reasons to read women in translation. Supporting Women in Translation month signals that the reading public wants different voices and more choices to read.

MY WITmonth Experiences Thus Far

For my part, my albeit late participation in Women in Translation month last year involved purchasing a copy of one the most highly discussed books, The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith). Kang’s novel was explosive in its discussion of identity,[‡] insanity, erasure, violence (including both child and domestic abuse), and family. I hadn’t read anything else like it, and the novel has stayed with me. This year, I followed it up with Kang’s novel, Human Acts (also translated by Deborah Smith). Based on the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea during the early 1980s, the government’s violence against its own citizens is both brutal and senseless. And yet, some chose to stand and protest regardless of the risks involved. Kang captured the frightening range of humanity, both noble and monstrous. Afterwards, I found myself wondering about immigrant families I’ve known (not just from South Korea), the reasons that might have motivated them to emigrate, how restrictive immigration policies might abandon families like theirs to terrible fates. The novel, too, reminded me of how some peaceful protestors in my country have been mistreated. Thought provoking, indeed.

Going  Further

While I do recommend you read more women in translation, I am not providing my own list because articles posted on several other websites and blogs already are doing an excellent job of providing these recommendations. These resources appear below. I also suggest typing #WITmonth into the WordPress reader or Twitter feed for more ideas for reading translated works by women writers.

The Women in Translation blog is obviously a fantastic resource for reading women in translation.

Reading Women in Translation #WITMonth by Claire McAlpine appears on her blog Word by Word, which regularly features translated works.

The AnzLitLovers blog by Lisa Hill has multiple reviews of books written by female authors in translation listed in this archive.

Words Without Borders (WWB) online literary magazine offers several features focusing on women writers in translation including 25 Recent Works by Women Writers to Read for #WITmonth by Jessica Chaffee and Where Are the Women in Translation? Here Are 31 to Read Now by Liz Cettina.

English PEN, an organization devoted to literature and human rights, has several articles discussing women in translation (include the PEN Translates awards and grants).  Joanna Walsh’s article, Women in Translation to Read Right Now, provides reading suggestions.

PEN America, the US-based branch of PEN, similarly features articles discussing women in translation , including Susan Bernofsky’s article Read These Women in Translation Now.

BookRiot features 7 August Releases by Women in Translation This #WITMonth by M. Lynx Qualey and 10 Books to Check Out for Women in Translation Month by Teresa Preston

Goodreads also features this fantastic list of over 600 works: Women in Translation

Feel free to share your suggested books or links to reading lists as well!

NOTES:

[*] I suspect, though, male writers would outnumber female writers in translation. So much work to do here.

[†] Meytal Radzinski estimates that only 30% of book translated into English were written by women. Specific details are available here.

[‡] I discuss The Vegetarian in a post on character here.