Category Archives: Brazilian Literature

Nothing he did was too blatant.

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares and translated by Daniel Hahn

Family Heirlooms is a fascinatingly twisty little novella that explores the tensions between the public and the private – surfaces and underlying realities.

Maria Bráulia Munhoz is the still-wealthy widow of the esteemed Judge Munhoz. She now lives in a small apartment with her lifelong ladies’ maid. Their only regular visitor is her nephew who acts as her personal assistant. Recently she tasked him to sell off some of her jewellery including a priceless ruby which was an engagement present bought for her by the judge long years ago. The nephew returns hesitant with the news that the jewel is a fake.

Immediately my mind turned to fraud on the nephew’s part. I’ve read too many 19th Century novels to trust impoverished young secretaries entrusted with managing others’ fortunes. What follows though is actually much slipperier than that. Here’s how the novel opens:

Maria Bráulia Munhoz, on the ninth floor of her apartment building in Itaim Bibi, is getting ready for lunch. The table is set for two people: her and her nephew. The tablecloth on the small, round table is damask and white linen and in the centre there is a lake that is also small and round, mirrored. On the surface of the mirror rests a Murano swan.

Maria Bráulia, certainly advanced in years though her age is undeclared, affixes to her face her second face, the “social” one—her movements sure and quick, accompanied by little pats—with its skin somewhere between rose and ivory, pink mouth and cheeks. Eyelashes with mascara sharpen the blue of her eyes and brighten the dyed yellow of her hair. With her social face once again on show, the other one, the strictly private one, recedes, as happens every morning, and is immediately forgotten by its owner.

That Murano swan has been with Maria Bráulia for many years. It’s one of the core symbols of the novel – an image of flawless perfection reflected in an artificial lake. It is Maria Bráulia’s life, or at least seen from outside it is.

It soon becomes apparent to the reader that the nephew’s revelation may not actually be news for all Maria Bráulia’s outraged protestations. Many, many years ago when the judge was first courting he bought Maria Bráulia the ruby as a gift. It was an astute move on his part for Maria Bráulia’s family were both wealthier and more prestigious than his own and yet with that one priceless present he removed all suggestion that he could be a fortune hunter.

Judge Munhoz being the austere man he was, and well-to-do but not really rich, his gesture was received by Maria Bráulia’s family, who were truly rich, with a solid fortune that had been born of the fabric industry, and whence the other jewels had come, the tourmaline, the topaz, the pearls, the two diamonds, etc., as a touching proof of love.

As soon as she’s finished showing the ring off to her family, literally the same day, he has her remove it and whisks it away returning in its place a paste replica. The original he explains is too valuable to wear here and there. Instead she should wear the imitation while the original remains safely locked away. When she tells her family they see this as further proof of the gem’s rarity; only the most exceptional of stones could merit an imitation of such quality.

The ruby is not the only imitation. The young judge has among his personal staff a muscular young physiotherapist from whom he takes personal instruction in his darkened office. The marriage produces no children and the judge seems almost to push Maria Bráulia into the arms of the family jeweller. On the surface and by any society standard the marriage is a tremendous success. However, like the ruby, it is best admired without too close an inspection.

Family Heirlooms has a rather mannered and often elliptical style which at times can become a little too convoluted for its own good. Another ruby later enters the story – this time a gift from the jeweller to Maria Bráulia as token of their hidden love. That ruby’s value is in part due to an inclusion within it which gives it an added fire and lustre; it’s a technical fault which nonetheless enhances the whole. I think perhaps Tavares’ writing is like that here. It sometimes borders on overwriting but it matches the subject matter and so gives the novella a slightly intoxicating quality that clearer language might lose.

The inclusion is also of course another metaphor. Here that’s rather spelled out by the jeweller as he uses a conversation about his gift to seduce Maria Bráulia:

“Now, Braulinha, your marriage is a little like this ruby. You and I both know what it’s like. It contains a little inclusion (The physiotherapist-secretary! Maria Bráulia deduced, ecstatic), you and I both know what that is. (It’s him! it’s him!) So let us then take advantage of the inclusion and use it to produce a lovely star-effect. (Oh God!) I think you understand me, Braulinha. (Oh Christ, Christ.)

Who could resist?

The judge meanwhile lines his study with full-sized portraits of heavyweight boxers showing their admirable limbs and torsos. He is happy, Maria Bráulia is happy, the physiotherapist is happy and so too is the jeweller. All this and since everyone is discreet society is happy too.

Family Heirlooms is often slyly funny. There’s a lovely running joke where the judge points out in passing Maria Bráulia’s lover’s facial resemblance to an old painting of Queen Victoria. Cruelly the comment has some truth and once she’s aware of it Maria Bráulia can never quite get the image from her mind.  By way of another example take this description of the judge’s death from a stroke:

And so it was that life, like a great heavyweight champion, perhaps even the champion most admired by Munhoz, Joe Louis, the Detroit Destroyer, appeared one more time, unexpectedly, and with a second, definitive jab, straight to the chin, knocked him out.

The judge’s death is followed shortly after by generosity on Maria Bráulia’s part when she gifts the secretary a pair of diamonds in memory of her husband and by way of unwritten bequest from him. The secretary never realises that although they look impressive they are among the less valuable of the family jewels. Nothing can be trusted here but everything looks as it should.

There is more but it’s a short work and I don’t want to spoil it. I read Family Heirlooms in one sitting and enjoyed it thoroughly. Since then it has if anything grown in memory. It’s funny, astute and often unexpected. Apparently Tavares is well-known and well-regarded in Brazil and with this as taster for her work I can see why.

I should mention that Family Heirlooms is available as an ebook only. While I appreciate many dislike ebooks, and much as I would like to have a physical copy of this myself to return to, in this case I’d suggest you make an exception as if nobody reads the ebook I doubt there’ll be future physical editions.

Other reviews

Tony of Tony’s Reading List reviews this here and is worth reading as always. I’d also flag these rather good reviews by A Year of Reading the World here, Vulpes Libres here and Necessary Fiction here. If you know others please feel free to link to them in the comments.

Tony suggests that the moral of the piece may be that life is too precious to merely guard and hide away. There is a suggestion in the silence and aridity of Maria Bráulia’s apartment that she may have squandered opportunities and allowed her life to become as hard and reflective as the rubies which have defined it, the passion of her life near-hidden as an inclusion deep within the surface respectability.

On the other hand, for a woman of her class and situation I’m not sure she does too badly. She is, at minimum, complicit in her life and for a woman who starts as a thing to be traded (again like the rubies) she does at least carve out a measure of her own existence and finds both companionship and love (even if not in the same man). Tony’s right though that her life is fairly circumscribed.

Did Maria Bráulia waste her life? Perhaps, but if so I don’t think entirely so.

5 Comments

Filed under Brazilian Literature, Tavares, Zulmira Ribeiro

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

The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector and translated by Ben Moser

On its face (and according to the back cover) The Hour of the Star is the story of an ordinary country girl named Macabéa who’s come to Rio for a better life but who finds herself eking out a living in a tiny corner of the city’s vast indifference. That’s a story told in many countries over many centuries; the places change but the experience remains much the same whether in 1970s Brazil, Medieval York or contemporary Shanghai.

What’s different here is that Macabéa’s story isn’t narrated by her or an omniscient Lispector, but by a struggling writer named Rodrigo S.M. who has created Macabéa based on a stranger seen in a crowd. The book opens not with Macabéa, but with Rodrigo’s author’s foreword:

This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It’s an unfinished book because it’s still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It’s a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.

Hour of the Star

That picture by the way undersells the cover, which in physical form is almost dayglo. It works surprisingly well, and somehow fits Lispector’s style.

Macabéa is poor, working class and uneducated. She’s a virgin with little experience of the world and what she has seen she doesn’t question.

Like the northeastern girl, there are thousands of girls scattered throughout the tenement slums, vacancies in beds in a room, behind the shop counters working to the point of exhaustion. They don’t even realise how easily substitutable they are and that they could just as soon drop off the face of the earth. Few protest and as far as I know they never complain since they don’t know to whom. Does this whom exist?

Rodrigo by contrast has enough money that he can afford to be a writer. He’s middle class, well-educated, an intellectual. Macabéa is his creation  and he wants to tell her tale without adornment, but his own story keeps breaking into the text as he explains his motivations and frustrations. He’s writing about himself at least as much as he is Macabéa, and he’s finding that even the simplest life is too complex to be easily captured on a page.

Macabéa’s life is a straightforward one. She’s not pretty or smart, and she has no particular talents. She works as a typist, though she’s bad at her job and is kept on from pity. She adores her boyfriend mostly just for him having noticed her, but doesn’t herself notice that he’s a self-obsessed asshole. She loves the movies. She’s so ordinary we’re halfway through the book before Rodrigo stops referring to her only as the northeastern girl and actually starts using her name (he wants to make her archetypal, but falters on her particularity).

Rodrigo meanwhile is struggling to find the words to describe her. His book within the book has thirteen different titles – he can’t settle on a single one. He writes about writing, or more to the point about trying to write, the sheer physicality of it, the exertion it involves, the challenge and difficulty. He compares himself to a manual labourer and proclaims “I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.” Perhaps he protests too much, self-identifying with the poor and the hopeless as if their struggle is his struggle even though their labour involves real sweat and bruises whereas his are only metaphorical.

The irony Rodrigo faces is that Macabéa, a girl he created and who he designed to be without talent or distinction, is still too large and too alive to be neatly pinned down. Somehow she escapes him, so that even as he writes her story he no longer knows entirely what that story is or where it’s going.

Just as well that what I’m about to write is already somehow written within me. What I have to do is copy myself out with the delicacy of a white butterfly. The idea of the white butterfly comes because, if the girl gets married, she’ll marry thin and light, and, as a virgin, in white. Maybe she won’t get married? The fact is I hold a destiny in my hands yet don’t feel powerful enough to invent freely. I follow a hidden, fatal line. I have to seek a truth that is beyond me. Why should I write about a young girl whose poverty isn’t even adorned? Maybe because within her there’s a seclusion and also because in the poverty of the body and spirit I touch holiness. I who want to feel the breath of my beyond. To be more than I am, since I am so little.

To an extent The Hour of the Star is about the struggle between an artist and their art. The art comes from the artist but can only have any lasting value if it takes on a reality of its own and can exist beyond its creator. The art becomes a kind of child, potentially carrying a small part of its creator into a future beyond their own death (mortality is a theme here too with Macabéa living in the moment, too innocent to be unhappy with her situation, while Rodrigo is all too aware of his own brevity).

Here Macabéa slowly asserts her own identity as the novel progresses. She’s becoming independent of Rodrigo, except of course that there is no escape because she is part of him, of his fiction. Macabéa is constrained both by her poverty and her author, with the irony being that Rodrigo is no more free as they are both Lispector’s creations.

It risks sounding tricksy or tediously postmodern, but it’s none of those things. Instead it’s strangely exhilarating. Both stories, Macabéa’s and Rodrigo’s, are worth following and while in a sense nothing much happens I found myself wanting something better for Macabéa than all that was on offer for her, and wondering too whether Rodrigo would manage to contain his own narrative and find some kind of truth that was capable of being expressed yet not trite.

The Hour of the Star comes in at around 80 pages, and in that space it addresses issues of class, poverty, gender, the creative process and more. The prose style is often disconcerting and it’s a novel which absolutely demands concentration and engagement, but it more than pays back what you put into it. This is one of my highlight reads of the year, and I sincerely hope it won’t be my last Lispector (not least because that would imply some form of horrible accident or premature death, both of which I’d prefer to avoid other things being equal).

A note on the translation

In his translator’s afterword, Benjamin Moser talks of how other translators have historically sought to correct or smooth Lispector’s prose. That seeing how it read oddly in English they tried to improve it, clean it up, ignoring the point that it reads oddly in Portuguese too and that this is quite intentional.

I knew Moser’s views before buying this edition and I’m aware that translators seeking to tidy a text is often a real problem, particularly with older translations where that was seen sometimes as something of a goal for translators to achieve. I was curious though how much difference it made and how Moser’s translation read against others. Since several others do remain in print, I therefore spent about an hour in Foyle’s comparing the same passage in different translations.

The advantage I had is that while I don’t speak Portuguese myself, I do read some Italian and a little Spanish and I could therefore look at an excerpt of the original text on my phone while looking at the different translated versions of that same passage in the shop. The result was fairly clear (eventually) – Moser’s text did seem closer to the original and to preserve more of its flavour.

Obviously each reader has to take their own view and different translations have different merits. For me though, going forward with Lispector’s other works, if there’s a Moser translation available that’ll be the one that I’ll read and if you’ve not read Star it’s Moser’s translation that I recommend.

Other reviews

Grant of 1streading wrote an excellent review of this here which focuses on different aspects of the novel and makes an interesting counterpoint to my take. This is a novel with enough going on that any review can only pick out a strand or two to focus on. There’s also a fascinating review at The Millions, here.

16 Comments

Filed under Brazilian Literature, Lispector, Clara