Cloudy English prose dims Brazil­ian star

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

THANKS TO BEN­JAMIN Moser’s re­cent bi­og­ra­phy (re­viewed in the JC of Septem­ber 4), Clarice Lis­pec­tor is fi­nally on the English-speak­ing map. The dis­tin­guished trans­la­tor Gre­gory Rabassa’s new ver­sion of her fourth novel, The Ap­ple in the Dark, gives us the op­por­tu­nity to as­sess the work of a woman ac­claimed as one of the most im­por­tant Brazil­ian nov­el­ists of the 20th cen­tury.

It tells the story of a fugi­tive named Martin, who leaves an aban­doned ho­tel owned by a mys­te­ri­ous, For­down­ing Ger­man. He even­tu­ally turns up at a farm run by two sis­ters, Vitoria and Ermelinda, gains em­ploy­ment with them, has an af­fair with one and is be­trayed by the other to the au­thor­i­ties for the crime (its na­ture dis­closed only to­wards the end) from whose scene he is in flight. Given the thin­ness of the nar­ra­tive, it would be wrong to re­veal any more.

But it is not the plot that con­cerns Lis­pec­tor so much as the ideas, in­spired by Kab­balah, for which it is a ve­hi­cle. Though Martin is the book’s cen­tral fig­ure, he is the least de­vel­oped of the three ma­jor char­ac­ters. He is a sym­bol, a ver­sion of the myth­i­cal golem, the mud fig­ure who can­not speak and be­comes a ser­vant ul­ti­mately grow­ing stronger than his mas­ters (here mis­tresses). When we first meet him, he has, in ef­fect, been re­duced by his sin to the level of a stone (or, at best, a beast) and needs to re­learn the na­ture of the world, while re­tain­ing a mys­ti­cal grasp of the true essence of ob­jects that lies be­neath their given names.

As Martin re­gains, in a worldly sense, his un­der­stand­ing (a word with neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions for Lis­pec­tor), his sin para­dox­i­cally re­deems him: “Af­ter- wards, when he went out into the light, he would see the things his hand had felt be­fore, and he would see those things with their false names… but he would have known them al­ready in the dark,” one such be­ing the ap­ple of the ti­tle.

When a novel’s nar­ra­tive is sub­or­di­nate to its ideas, the qual­ity of the writ­ing is of para­mount im­por­tance. Lis­pec­tor’s echoes of tran­scen­dent Kab­bal­is­tic lyri­cism are ex­pressed in a suc­cinct, mu­si­cal Por­tuguese that of­ten fails to trans­late (which may ex­plain her ne­glect in English). Rabassa’s trans­la­tion ranges from un­re­mark­able to ugly and clunk­ing — some­one takes “sneaky and crafty ad­van­tage of that ma­te­ri­al­i­sa­tion of light” or “used to play soc­cer and made a happy goal”.

Nor is the en­ter­prise helped by in­ad­e­quate edit­ing and proof-read­ing that al­lows Ermelinda sud­denly to meta­mor­phose into En­nelinda, “not” to be­come “riot”, and en­tire sen­tences to be ren­dered in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. And if any­one can pro­vide me with a def­i­ni­tion for “ththi”, I would be grate­ful.

Clarice Lis­pec­tor: ideas above plot

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