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The Hour of the Star

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The Hour of the Star

"The Hour of the Star" by Clarice Lispector
Phil Jourdan
One of the darkest novels about human goodness.

Clarice Lispector died young but not quite unknown in Brazil, and her novels are neglected but not quite unknown internationally. Those who have read her agree that she was a thoughtful, twisted, occasionally brilliant author of short novels about very little on the surface: a woman killing a cockroach, for instance. The ingenuity lies in what Lispector did with her mundane situations: she turned them into fables of horrible psychological bullying, protestations against the weirdness and incoherence of things, dirges for the loss of magic. In Lispector's world, events are both intimately connected and entirely unconnected. Anticlimax is the norm and everywhere present. Virtue is unrewarded, but so is crime. And the great irony is that for all the darkness, Lispector's writing is still beautiful, life-affirming, enchanting.

Lispector's final novel was written before she knew she was dying of cancer. It is, nevertheless, a death book. Everything about The Hour of the Star hints at the final moment. More than the death of the body is tackled in it — the gradual death of hope and optimism. Its protagonist, Macabea, is so tragically ordinary, and painted with such violent malice by the male writer-narrator for being so ordinary, that by the end of this 90-page work this reader was left feeling sick. The tiny novel moves from incident to pointless incident without things ever turning out well for Macabea, and nobody (not her philandering boyfriend, not her workmate, not even the narrator who claims to imagine her whole life story out of a single memory of a girl he once saw) seems capable of caring about her. From the novel's opening pages — which bounce about aimlessly as the narrator flexes his muscles and indulges in all manner of philosophical trickery — to the last paragraph, wherein we are reminded, immediately after the absurd but tragic final scene, that we are in the season for strawberries, there is no drop of hope for Macabea. She is an antiheroine simply because there's nothing heroic about her, yet she is also not a villain. Macabea is the loneliest character in her world of lonely characters.

Why would anyone want to read a novel in which nothing but bad things happen to a good person? That is the mystery of The Hour of the Star. It is a difficult but moving read, and its heart is entirely compressed into Macabea. It does not matter how cruelly the narrator invents her, or how manipulatively her boyfriend toys with her feelings, or how indifferently the universe kills her off: we still like Macabea. She is anything but clever, and too naive for her own good, but precisely because of these qualities, which are so rare in the novel's universe, she stands out as the brightest light in this very dark story. In juxtaposing the senselessness of existence with the potential for good in human beings, Lispector makes her case remarkably well. Even if our narrator-creator seems self-absorbed and tyrannical and quick to bore; even if our friends are vain and try to use us for no real gain; and even if death comes suddenly and unfairly, the moments of beauty make the suffering seem a little more worth it. Macabea is this hope.