The Hour of the Star was Clarice Lispector’s last novel, published in 1977 shortly after her death from ovarian cancer at the age of 57. Yes, I thought I’d start cheerfully, and it’s not going to get better. It is under 100 pages but every page counts, to the extent that by the end of it I felt as if I’d been hit on the head by one of those very small old ladies that I battle down the Sainsbury’s reduced aisle – you know, the ones with the shopping trolleys who are tougher than they look when it comes to commandeering the half-prize Cumberland sausages.
The narrator is essentially an author explaining to the dear reader why he has bothered recounting the story of an impoverished girl living in the Rio de Janeiro slums, in between proceeding with her story. You are invited into the craft of storytelling and its purpose. For the narrator, a tale of poverty is a public service:
If the reader is financially secure….he must step out of himself and see how others live. If he is poor, he will not be reading this story because what I have to say is superfluous for anyone who often feels the pangs of hunger. Here I am acting as a safety valve for you and the tedious bourgeoisie.
Just as you are thinking, ‘wow this book is well smart-arse and post-modern, and it’s a translation, yet only 96 pages, I’m going to look really right-on here for totally minimal effort and will probably have some time for videos of cats or babies farting in the bath later’, the descriptions of this girl’s poverty descend on you.
Her financial poverty is painfully expressed – chewing paper when hungry, curling up in a ball against the cold – but worse still is the poverty of the love she is shown, and her love for herself. The neglect of her childhood (‘as a little girl because she had no one to kiss, she often used to kiss the wall’...I mean, lordy, at least I had my Jason Donovan posters) extends into her neglect as an adult when she becomes involved with a man whose insecurities at his own poverty, illegitimacy and size – despite his bravado about ‘being an intelligent chap..one of these days I’ll be in politics’ – crystallize into his cruel treatment of her. Examples of bad-boyfriendry include accusing her of stupidity if he doesn’t know the answer to a question she has asked, and the classic line ‘you’ve only cost me a coffee so far. That’s your lot’, which reminded me of an ex who claimed that ‘girlfriends are expensive’ to which I replied ‘no dear it’s prostitutes who are expensive’, but I digress. As she has never been valued, she doesn’t expect much (‘The girl resigned herself, convinced that she was only fit for breeding fleas and that she didn’t deserve a dog’s affection’) and accepts his cruelty.
Yet strangely, at first, she doesn’t seem to realize she has reason to be unhappy with her lot: ‘The girl did not know that she existed, just as a dog doesn’t know it’s a dog. Therefore she wasn’t aware of her own unhappiness.‘ So, she can find some sort of pleasure in a ‘treat’ of cold coffee and daydreaming about advertisements of things she will never afford. But then there’s a trip to a clairvoyant that shatters her blissful ignorance and an ending which I will not spoil for you but would advise you to prepare for by having a stiff drink on standby.
So after all this I felt like going back to the narrator/author and asking, ‘yes why did you write the story of this poor girl? I’m too depressed to watch cat videos now and I’ve turned to the old Mother’s Ruin for comfort.’ But I return to his/Lispector’s original point of performing a public service and I get it. The Hour of the Star aptly demonstrates that the impact of poverty is greater than simply not having enough to eat or a warm place to sleep, through characters who personify the damage poverty can do to an individual and, by extension, to a wider society. The female character has such a low opinion of herself that she takes whatever is meted out to her. The male is so frustrated at his lot in life he metes out the cruelty. Putting these gender stereotypes aside, the novel shows how poverty colours how you view yourself and how you treat others as a consequence of that self-view, and how therefore the whole of society suffers through an individual’s poverty. So when Channel 5 in the UK is trying to get us to laugh at poor people in one of their ‘Poverty Porn’ classics such as ‘On the Dole at the Seaside’ or whatever it’s called now (I’m sure I saw one programme called ‘Dogs on the Dole’ but I’ve blocked it out of my mind), in reality we’re laughing at something a big closer to home.
In another life, it could be any of us. As the narrator says, ‘When I consider that I might have been born her – and why not? – I shudder. The fact that I am not her strikes me as being a cowardly escape.’ One in nine people in the world do not have enough to eat. 60% of the world’s hungry are women. 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population. This post didn’t end cheerfully either, did it. I’m going to go and watch a cat video now. Cats 4 Liiiife.
(With thanks to Oxfam and World Food Programme for the depressing stats)