Reviewed by Craig Epplin
The Hour of the Star is a novel full of sound. “The story will be accompanied,” the narrator tells us in an early intromission, “by the plangent violin played by a thin man right on the street corner.” His music is meant to sound like a toothache feels, unyielding and discordant. We’ll never know the content of his mute, melancholy performance, and his repertoire is impossible to determine. The novel’s opening pages read like a catalogue of modern classical music—it’s dedicated to everyone from Schumann to Schoenberg and beyond—but it’s difficult to imagine the novel being set to anything resembling an actual song. Notes, or at most phrases, might succeed one another, sketching momentarily identifiable melodies, but the underlying structure is a vague meandering of sound, set to the dull pulse of inconsistent rhythms.
There are other sounds too. Trumpets peal and herald revelations. The narrator hears a piano playing. He calls his own voice strident and syncopated. Parenthetical explosions mark the story’s most dramatic moments. The life of the protagonist, a young woman named Macabéa, unfolds against the tinny soundtrack of an ill tuned music box. She loves listening to the clock radio station, comforted by the tick-tock of time’s passing. She hears a song (from an opera by Gaetano Donizetti) that brings her to tears:
“Una furtiva lacrima” had been the only really beautiful thing in her life. Wiping away her own tears she tried to sing what she heard. But her voice was as crude and out of tune as she was. When she heard it she started to cry. It was the first time she’d ever cried, she didn’t know she had so much water in her eyes. She cried, blew her nose no longer knowing what she was crying about. She wasn’t crying because of the life she led: because, never having led any other, she’d accepted that with her that was just the way things were. But I also think she was crying because, through the music, she might have guessed there were other ways of feeling, there were more delicate existences and even a certain luxury of soul.
The poverty of her execution contrasts with the opulence of the original. And this cuts to the heart of what this novel, first published in English in 1986 and just reissued in a new translation, is all about: the intolerable beauty of even the most banal ugliness. Macabéa is a poor girl, originally from northeastern Brazil, who lives in Rio de Janeiro. She eats badly and works a thankless job as a semi-literate typist. She shares a room with four other women, all named Maria. Her pleasures are minimal, drinking Coke and occasionally painting her nails. She looks in the mirror and dreams of being Marilyn Monroe. Everyone around her insists on her inferiority. Her boyfriend buys her a coffee (if they charge extra for milk, he tells her, she’ll have to pay the difference), and she gets sick from the excess of sugar poured into it. They go out for a stroll, but neither of them knows how to take a walk. When he dumps her for her coworker, he tells her in parting: “You, Macabéa, are like a hair in the soup. Nobody feels like eating it.” His verdict would be shared by the narrator, who has only once glimpsed Macabéa, giving the story the air of a delirious obsession. For him, her story is exemplary, if only because she is so wretched: “I know there are girls who sell their bodies, their only real possession, in exchange for a good dinner instead of a bologna sandwich. But the person I’m going to talk about scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her.” Her abjection is clearly what attracted him to her in the first place, as we understand by the novel’s end: “Yes, I’m in love with Macabéa, my dear Maca, in love with her ugliness and total anonymity since she belongs to no one. In love with her weak lungs, the scraggly girl.” His love is narcissistic, no doubt, for he sees himself reflected in her poverty of self: no one would miss her, but no one would miss him either.
The novel’s title hits this question of knowledge squarely on the head. Through it, Lispector casts death as a cinematic moment and, again, as a musical experience:
That not-knowing might seem awful but it’s not that bad because she knew lots of things in the way nobody teaches a dog to wag his tail or a person to feel hungry; you’re born and you just know. Just as nobody one day would teach her how to die: yet she’d die one day as if she’d learned the starring role by heart. For at the hour of death a person becomes a shining movie star, it’s everyone’s moment of glory and it’s as when in choral chanting you hear the whooshing shrieks.
Things just happen, in other words. There is an unknowable logic behind everything that is, and it makes no sense to us. This is why the narrator has to talk so much (about Macabéa, in part, but also about himself): to fill the void of not knowing. The world is always becoming itself, and is for this reason never fully itself. The novel’s first paragraph, one of the most beautiful passages I have ever read, puts it this way:
All the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I don’t know why, but I do know that the universe never began.