Clarice Lispector – The Hour of the Star
A part of a talk to pastors in Sweden
Let me now point to Clarice Lispector’s novel The Hour of the Star that you all read. It seems that immigration and refugees are at the heart of your preoccupations and for me this novel speaks to the heart of it. I don’t know how you read it but I want to offer a way to read this novel from a context I know very well, the context of being an immigrant living in the United States.
Lispector is bringing about the drama of the people of the Northeast of Brazil who come to the Southeast to find jobs and live their lives. This migration happens because of the social conditions in the northeast being dramatic where most of the people are stricken by poverty. The South is “developed” and all of the factories are there. Jobs are more abundant and it is easier, not easy, to find a way of living.
Macabea, the main character is the figure of an almost illiterate woman who is shy, had her life very limited by poverty and struggled deeply to find a place to live. In spite of her limited cognitions and abilities, there is a whole world in Macabea’s heart. She desires the desires of any other people who wants to be happy.
Macabea is the story of someone who is so simple, even to a fault. Macabea carries the misery and poverty of so many immigrants and refugees who want to find a place in the world. All she wants is to be happy. Just like any immigrant and refugee. But her world is marked by violence, pain, suffering and striking limitations. To the point that even her happiest moment is haunted by a tragedy. And that is what happens to her at the end. There is the tragedy of a car accident when she is the happiest in her life.
That accident makes us feel desolated. How tragic! On the other hand there is this sense of accomplishment that finally, she found all of the joy she had ever imagined. She says:
“I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me, and on the way home in the taxi I thought it’d be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over and I died after hearing all those good things.”
In the mind of the immigrant, there is a sense that any possible good outcome runs the risk of being taken away. Once you move away from your home into somebody else’s land, you have to find ways to survive, and that survival is deeply marked by indeterminacy. You are always haunted by a certain tragedy that is always hoovering around.
I was a pastor of a community of immigrants for 4 years in Massachusetts, in the United States. All of them were undocumented immigrants. At every corner of their lives, when a joy would come to them and hope would somehow grow, there was always the fear of being caught by the police, of going to jail, of being sent back to their countries in shame.
For a refugee perhaps, once you lost everything, you are always prone to lose everything gain.
I propose that in this novel, the narrator is us, the theologians. We try to understand the lives of the immigrants, we are able to fully understand some parts of it. We explain, we become hyperbolic, we go into minutia, we expose, we relate, we connect, we make know to others what is to be an immigrant and a refugee to the best of our knowledge. But also, we also have no idea what is to be an immigrant. We overdo the descriptions, we don’t say enough, we miss the points, we project our feelings over them, we feel with them this closeness to the point of intimacy. But we also feel this unbridgeable gap with them, a distance so great we can’t even know how far from them we are. In all of that, at the end of the day, we are just grateful we are not them.
As somebody says:
Nothing is stable in the text. The voice of the narrator moves from the darkest wondering about existence and God to almost comic wandering around in his character; the narrator is watching her, entering her mind, listening to her and then standing back. He is filled with pity and sympathy for her case — her poverty, her innocence, her body, how much she does not know and cannot imagine — but he is also alert to the writing of fiction itself as an activity which demands tricks that he, the poor narrator, simply does not possess, or does not find useful. At times, on the other hand, he is in possession of too many of them.
At the end, it is hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, Macabéa or the narrator, the innocent victim of life, or the highly self-conscious victim of his own failure. The one who knows too little, or the one who knows too much. The narrative moves from a set of broad strokes about character and scene, with throwaway moments and casual statements which sum up and analyse, to aphorisms about life and death and the mystery of time and God. It moves from a deep awareness about the tragedy of being alive to a sly allowance for the fact that existence is a comedy.
Isn’t our sermons on immigrants a little bit like this narrator? How much do we really know or want to know? How much do we see ourselves fully implicated in their lives? How much we actually resent their ways of living? Macabea’s ways of living is annoying. She doesn’t answer when she is supposed to answer, she speaks when she is not called, she is dirty sometimes, she only eats hot dogs, she doesn’t have social clues. She is just like an immigrant or a refugee that we try to figure out but can’t, that we try to be nice but they don’t cooperate. Once our compassion comes to an end, and it certainly does, we are left with the materiality of an immigrant who is now right there, in front of us, messing up with our own stabilized world. God how annoying they are! As much as we try it is hard to handle them. In our worst times we hate them fully! In our best times we feel for them but don’t know what to do with them.
In the words of the French critic Hélène Cixous, we can see how we as the theologians narrating the lives of immigrants and refugees. I love when Cixous talks about the powerlessness of the Macabea AND of the narrator:
The Hour of the Star is mysterious, garrulous and oddly refined. It withholds and it tells too much. It makes sweeping judgments and tiny observations. It is a meditation on two types of powerlessness, each one stark and distinct. The first is the powerlessness of the narrator, someone who has words at his disposal but who feels that words, in all their uncertainty and shiftiness, will dispose of him. He is not sure whether this should make him laugh or cry; instead he remains in an odd, frightened state with strange bursts of pure determination. And then there is the powerlessness of the character he has imagined, or seen, or allowed the words, in all their frailty and foolishness, to conjure up. But there are times when the narrator forgets himself, as Beckett often does, and finds something.
As pastors you know this: when you forget yourself in the task of pastoring, that’s when you find yourself more vibrantly, more fully.
Macabea’s story is the unknown story of many immigrants and refugees. The violence, the endless anxiety, the absences, the lack of abilities, the hunger of the world, the pressures to survive, the limits of our words shrinking our souls, the ways our body must behave and the constant threat in moving wrong, the constant reshaping of our brains, the forms of knowledge we have to let go, the ways our sensations must be reordered, the mounting of new fears, and the clearest sense of an unknown future. This is Macabea, this is part of being an immigrant, perhaps a refugee.
There is a sense of relieve in Macabea’s death. Thank God, one less to annoy us, one less to suffer, one less to wonder aimlessly, one left to disturb our peace. Macabea is the full force presence of alterity and the demand to face our contradictions. Macabea tells us who we truly are and I turn between being happy with myself as how I supported her with all my heart through her life, but also how incredibly embarrassed I kept feeling in seeing myself being so excruciatingly annoyed by her. Relief, sorrowfulness, anger, all feelings are disposed with her death. But in public, I will only display my sorrowfulness.
Macabea tells me of the racial divide established by modernity. The way I begin to see, feel and relate with Macabea is always already racially oriented. Because we all learned to see it this way.
Christianity always carries this racial divide organised by modernity. In fact, Christians helped shaped that by the ways the gospel was forced upon colonized people. On the other hand, Christians are haunted by demands of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures to take care of the immigrant and the refugee. We cannot escape that. But how can we offer hospitality? Hospitality without borders? Is that even possible? If yes how? If not why? Can we read the Bible beyond modernity and the racial formation of five centuries? There will be too many Macabeas dying until we figure that out.