In my pantheon of favorite writers, Clarice Lispector is right there at the top. She’s a writer, like Muriel Spark or Thomas Bernhard, who always make me ask when reading their work: Is this allowed? Sometimes her prose has such power I am made to wonder if I have the strength and stability to keep reading. Championed by Elizabeth Bishop and Helene Cixous, Lispector is nevertheless still not well known to English-language readers. The miraculous internet sent these two Clarice Lispector stories my way recently via twitter and so I thought I’d post them.
Translated by Elizabeth Bishop
(First published in the Summer 1964 issue of The Kenyon Review)
She was a Sunday hen. She was still alive only because it was not yet 9:00 o’clock.
She seemed calm. Since Saturday she had cowered in a corner of the kitchen. She didn’t look at anyone, no one looked at her. Even when they had selected her, fingering her intimately and indifferently, they couldn’t have said whether she was fat or thin. No one would ever have guessed that she had a desire.
So it was a surprise when she opened her little wings, puffed out her breast, and, after two or three tries, reached the wall of the terrace. For an instant she vacillated – long enough for the cook to scream – and then she was on the neighbor’s terrace, and from there, by means of another awkward flight, she reached a tile roof. There she remained like a misplaced weather vane, hesitating, first on one foot, then on the other. The family was urgently called and, in consternation, saw their lunch standing beside a chimney. The father of the family, reminding himself of the double obligation of eating and of occasionally taking exercise, happily got into his bathing trunks and resolved to follow the itinerary of the hen. By cautious jumps he reached the roof, and the hen, trembling and hesitating, quickly picked another direction. The pursuit became more intense. From roof to roof, more than a block of the street was traversed. Unprepared for a more savage struggle for life, the hen had to decide for herself which routes to take, without any help from her race. In the young man, however, the sleeping hunter woke up. Lowly as was the prey, he gave a hunting cry.
Alone in the world, without father or mother, she ran, out of breath, concentrated, mute. Sometimes in her flight she would stand at bay on the edge of a roof, gasping; while the young man leaped over others with difficulty, she had a moment in which to collect herself. The she looked so free.
Stupid, timid, and free. Not victorious, the way a rooster in flight would have looked. What was there in her entrails that made a being of her? The hen is a being. It’s true, she couldn’t be counted on for anything. She herself couldn’t count on herself – the way a rooster believes in his comb. Her only advantage was that there are so many hens that if one died another would appear at the same moment, exactly like her, as if it were the same hen.
Finally, at one of the moments when she stopped to enjoy her escape, the young man caught her. Amid feathers and cries, she was taken prisoner. Then she was carried in triumph, by one wing, across the roofs and deposited on the kitchen floor with a certain violence. Still dazed, she shook herself a little, cackling hoarsely and uncertainly.
It was then that it happened. Completely overwhelmed, the hen laid an egg. Surprised, exhausted. Perhaps it was premature. But immediately afterward, as if she had been born for maternity, she looked like an old, habitual mother. She sat down on the egg and remained that way, breathing, buttoning and unbuttoning her eyes. Her heart, so small on a plate, made the feathers rise and fall, and filled that which would never be more than an egg with warmth. Only the little girl was near-by and witnessed everything, terrified. As soon as she could tear herself away, she got up off the floor and shrieked: “Mama! Mama! Don’t kill the hen any more! She laid an egg! She likes us!”
Everyone ran to the kitchen again and, silent, stood in a circle around the new mother. Warming her child, she was neither gentle nor harsh, neither happy nor sad; she was nothing; she was a hen. Which suggests no special sentiment. The father, the mother, and the daughter looked at her for some time, without any thought whatever to speak of. No one had ever patted the head of a hen. Finally, with a certain brusqueness, the father decided: “If you have this hen killed, I’ll never eat chicken again in my life!”
“Me too!” the little girl vowed ardently.
The mother shrugged, tired.
Unconscious of the life that had been granted her, the hen began to live with the family. The little girl, coming home from school, threw down her school-bag and ran to the kitchen without stopping. Once in a while the father would still remember: “And to think I made her run in that state!” The hen became the queen of the house. Everyone knew it except the hen. She lived between the kitchen and the kitchen terrace, making use of her two capacities: apathy and fear.
But when everyone in the house was quiet and seemed to have forgotten her, she plucked up a little of the courage left over from her great escape and perambulated the tile floor, her body moving behind her head, deliberate as in a field, while the little head betrayed her: moving, rapid and vibrant, with the ancient and by now mechanical terror of her species.
Occasionally, and always more rarely, the hen resembled the one that had once stood plain against the air on the edge of the roof, ready to make an announcement. At such moments she filled her lungs with the impure air of the kitchen and, if females had been able to sing, she would not have sung, but she would have been much more contented. Though not even at these moments did the expression of her empty head change. In flight, at rest, giving birth, or pecking corn – it was the head of a hen, the same that was designed at the beginning of the centuries.
Until one day they killed her and ate her and the years went by.
The Smallest Woman in the World
by Clarice Lispector
Translated by Elizabeth Bishop
(Originally published in the 1960 book of short stories, Family Ties)
In the depths of Equatorial Africa the French explorer, Marcel Pretre, hunter and man of the world, came across a tribe of surprisingly small pygmies. Therefore he was even more surprised when he was informed that a still smaller people existed, beyond forests and distances. So he plunged farther on.
In the Eastern Congo, near Lake Kivu, he really did discover the smallest pygmies in the world. And—like a box within a box within a box—obedient, perhaps, to the necessity nature sometimes feels of outdoing herself—among the smallest pygmies in the world there was the smallest of the smallest pygmies in the world.
Among mosquitoes and lukewarm trees, among leaves of the most rich and lazy green, Marcel Pretre found himself facing a woman seventeen and three-quarter inches high, full-grown, black, silent— “Black as a monkey,” he informed the press—who lived in a treetop with her little spouse. In the tepid miasma of the jungle, that swells the fruits so early and gives them an almost intolerable sweetness, she was pregnant.
So there she stood, the smallest woman in the world. For an instant, in the buzzing heat, it seemed as if the Frenchman had unexpectedly reached his final destination. Probably only because he was not insane, his soul neither wavered nor broke its bounds. Feeling an immediate necessity for order and for giving names to what exists, he called her Little Flower. And in order to be able to classify her among the recognizable realities, he immediately began to collect facts about her.
Her race will soon be exterminated. Few examples are left of this species, which, if it were not for the sly dangers of Africa, might have multiplied. Besides disease, the deadly effluvium of the water, insufficient food, and ranging beasts, the great threat to the Likoualas are the savage Bahundes, a threat that surrounds them in the silent air, like the dawn of battle. The Bahundes hunt them with nets, like monkeys. And eat them. Like that: they catch them in nets and eat them. The tiny race, retreating, always retreating, has finished hiding away in the heart of Africa, where the lucky explorer discovered it. For strategic defense, they live in the highest trees. The women descend to grind and cook corn and to gather greens; the men, to hunt. When a child is born, it is left free almost immediately. It is true that, what with the beasts, the child frequently cannot enjoy this freedom for very long. But then it is true that it cannot be lamented that for such a short life there had been any long, hard work. And even the language that the child learns is short and simple, merely the essentials. The Likoualas use few names; they name things by gestures and animal noises. As for things of the spirit, they have a drum. While they dance to the sound of the drum, a little male stands guard against the Bahundes, who come from no one knows where.
That was the way, then, that the explorer discovered, standing at his very feet, the smallest existing human thing. His heart beat, because no emerald in the world is so rare. The teachings of the wise men of India are not so rare. The richest man in the world has never set eyes on such a strange grace. Right there was a woman that the greed of the most exquisite dream could never have imagined. It was then that the explorer said timidly, and with a delicacy of feeling of which his wife would never have thought him capable: “You are Little Flower.”
At that moment, Little Flower scratched herself where no one scratches. The explorer—as if he were receiving the highest prize for chastity to which an idealistic man dares aspire—the explorer, experienced as he was, looked the other way.
A photograph of Little Flower was published in the colored supplement of the Sunday Papers, life-size. She was wrapped in cloth, her belly already very big. The flat nose, the black face, the splay feet. She looked like a dog.
On that Sunday, in an apartment, a woman seeing the picture of Little Flower in the paper didn’t want to look a second time because “It gives me the creeps.”
In another apartment, a lady felt such perverse tenderness for the smallest of the African women that—an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure—Little Flower could never be left alone to the tenderness of that lady. Who knows to what murkiness of love tenderness can lead? The woman was upset all day, almost as if she were missing something. Besides, it was spring and there was a dangerous leniency in the air.
In another house, a little girl of five, seeing the picture and hearing the comments, was extremely surprised. In a houseful of adults, this little girl had been the smallest human being up until now. And, if this was the source of all caresses, it was also the source of the first fear of the tyranny of love. The existence of Little Flower made the little girl feel—with a deep uneasiness that only years and years later, and for very different reasons, would turn into thought—made her feel, in her first wisdom, that “sorrow is endless.”
In another house, in the consecration of spring, a girl about to be married felt an ecstasy of pity: “Mama, look at her little picture, poor little thing! Just look how sad she is!”
In another house, a clever little boy had a clever idea. “Mummy, if I could put this little woman from Africa in little Paul’s bed when he’s asleep? When he woke up wouldn’t he be frightened? Wouldn’t he howl? When he saw her sitting on his bed? And then we’d play with her! She would be our toy!”
His mother was setting her hair in front of the bathroom mirror at the moment, and she remembered what a cook had told her about life in an orphanage. The orphans had no dolls, and, with terrible maternity already throbbing in their hearts, the little girls had hidden the death of one of the children from the nun. They kept the body in a cupboard and when the nun went out they played with the dead child, giving her baths and things to eat, punishing her only to be able to kiss and console her. In the bathroom, the mother remembered this, and let fall her thoughtful hands, full of curlers. She considered the cruel necessity of loving. And she considered the malignity of our desire for happiness. She considered how ferociously we need to play. How many times we will kill for love. Then she looked at her clever child as if she were looking at a dangerous stranger. And she had a horror of her own soul that, more than her body, had engendered that being, adept at life and happiness. She looked at him atentively and with uncomfortable pride, that child who had already lost two front teeth, evolution evolving itself, teeth falling out to give place to those that could bite better. “I’m going to buy him a new suit,” she decided, looking at him, absorbed. Obstinately, she adorned her gap-toothed son with fine clothes; obstinately, she wanted him very clean, as if his cleanliness could emphasize a soothing superficiality, obstinately perfecting the polite side of beauty. Obstinately drawing away from, and drawing him away from, something that ought to be “black as a monkey.” Then, looking in the bathroom mirror, the mother gave a deliberately refined and social smile, placing a distance of insuperable milleniums between the abstract lines of her features and the crude face of Little Flower. But, with years of practice, she knew that this was going to be a Sunday on which she would have to hide from herself anxiety, dreams, and lost millenniums.
In another house, they gave themselves up to the enthralling task of measuring the seventeen and three-quarter inches of Little Flower against the wall. And, really, it was a delightful surprise: she was even smaller than the sharpest imagination could have pictured. In the heart of each member of the family was born, nostalgic, the desire to have that tiny and indomitable thing for itself, that thing spared having been eaten, that permanent source of charity. The avid family soul wanted to devote itself. To tell the truth, who hasn’t wanted to own a human being just for himself? Which, it is true, wouldn’t always be convenient; there are times when one doesn’t want to have feelings.
“I bet if she lived here it would end in a fight,” said the father, sitting in the armchair and definitely turning the page of the newspaper. “In this house everything ends in a fight.”
“Oh, you, José—always a pessimist,” said the mother.
“But, Mama, have you thought of the size her baby’s going to be?” said the oldest little girl, aged thirteen, eagerly.
The father stirred uneasily behind his paper.
“It should be the smallest black baby in the world,” the mother answered, melting with pleasure. “Imagine her serving our table, with her big little belly!”
“That’s enough!” growled father.
“But you have to admit,” said the mother, unexpectedly offended, “that it is something very rare. You’re the insensitive one.”
And the rare thing itself?
In the meanwhile, in Africa, the rare thing herself, in her heart—and who knows if the heart wasn’t black, too, since once nature has erred she can no longer be trusted—the rare thing herself had something even rarer in her heart, like the secret of her own secret: a minimal child. Methodically, the explorer studied that little belly of the smallest mature human being. It was at this moment that the explorer, for the first time since he had known her, instead of feeling curiousity, or exaltation, or victory, or the scientific spirit, felt sick.
The smallest woman in the world was laughing.
She was laughing, warm, warm—Little Flower was enjoying life. The rare thing herself was experiencing the ineffable sensation of not having been eaten yet. Not having been eaten yet was something that at any other time would have given her the agile impulse to jump from branch to branch. But, in this moment of tranquility, amid the thick leaves of the Eastern Congo, she was not putting this impulse into action—it was entirely concentrated in the smallness of the rare thing itself. So she was laughing. It was a laugh such as only one who does not speak laughs. It was a laugh that the explorer, constrained, couldn’t classify. And she kept on enjoying her own soft laugh, she who wasn’t being devoured. Not to be devoured is the most perfect feeling. Not to be devoured is the secret goal of a whole life. While she was not being eaten, her bestial laughter was as delicate as joy is delicate. The explorer was baffled.
In the second place, if the rare thing herself was laughing, it was because, within her smallness, a great darkness had begun to move.
The rare thing herself felt in her breast a warmth that might be called love. She loved that sallow explorer. If she could have talked and had told him that she loved him, he would have been puffed up with vanity. Vanity that would have collapsed when she added that she also loved the explorer’s ring very much, and the explorer’s boots. And when that collapse had taken place, Little Flower would not have understood why. Because her love for the explorer—one might even say “profound love,” since, having no other resources, she was reduced to a profundity—her profound love for the explorer would not have been at all diminished by the fact that she also loved his boots. There is an old misunderstanding about the word love, and, if many children are born from this misunderstanding, many others have lost the unique chance of being born, only because of the susceptibility that demands that it be me! me! that is loved, and not my money. But in the humidity of the forest, these cruel refinements do not exist, and love is not to be eaten, love is to find a boot pretty, love is to like the strange color of a man who isn’t black, is to laugh for love of a shiny ring. Little Flower blinked with love, and laughed warmly, small, gravid, warm.
The explorer tried to smile back, without knowing exactly to what abyss his smile responded, and then he was embarrassed as only a very big man can be embarrassed. He pretended to adjust his explorer’s hat better; he colored, prudishly. He turned a lovely color, a greenish-pink, like a lime at sunrise. He was undoubtedly sour.
Perhaps adjusting the symbolic helmet helped the explorer to get control of himself, severely recapture the discipline of his work, and go on with his note-taking. He had learned how to understand some of the tribe’s few articulate words, and to interpret their signs. By now, he could ask questions.
Little Flower answered “Yes.” That it was very nice to have a tree of her own to live in. Because—she didn’t say this but her eyes became so dark that they said it—because it is good to own, good to own, good to own. The explorer winked several times.
Marcel Pretre had some difficult moments with himself. But at least he kept busy taking notes. Those who didn’t take notes had to manage as best they could.
“Well,” suddenly declared one old lady, folding up the newspaper decisively, “Well, as I always say: God knows what He’s doing.”