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Near to the Wild Heart (Perto do Coracao Selvagem).

Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, who died in 1977, was not only a leading novelist of her generation but also a precursor of today's feminist writers. Originally published in 1944, Near to the Wild Heart, whose title is a line from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was Lispector's first novel. Giovanni Pontiero's translation makes it available for the first time to North American audiences.

Written when the author was only nineteen years old, Near to the Wild Heart explores questions of identity, sex roles, and societal pressures. Joana, the book's protagonist, is a perceptive young woman in search of an authentic existence. The first part of the novel alternates between images of the child and the adult Joana, a middle-class married woman on the brink of rebellion.

Raised by her father, the little girl Joana is often left to amuse herself. Even as a child she is given more to heavy thinking than to frivolous games, and the simplest activities bring her face to face with the stark realities of life and death. Thus, looking out the window at her neighbor's chickens, "she knew that some worm or other lay squirming before being devoured by the hen that humans were going to eat." After her father's death, Juana is sent to the home of her aunt, whose theatrical displays of affection the little girl rebuffs. Unwilling to play the appreciative, loving niece, Joana provokes her aunt's wrath and is shipped off to boarding school. Her first infatuation is with a teacher, who at first seems fascinating, but whom she later describes as nothing but "a fat old man sitting in the sun."

The second part of the novel portrays Joana as a reflective woman trapped in a conventional and unsatisfying marriage. At first attracted to certain enigmatic qualities she thought she perceived in her husband Otavio, Joana soon tires of his weakness and hypocrisy, and of the mundane routine he tries to impose. Put off by Joana's coldness, Otavio seeks solace in the arms--and bed-- of his former fiancee, who becomes pregnant with his child. Looking back on her marriage, Joana begins to see it as a betrayal of self and determines to seek freedom, regardless of the consequences. She becomes involved with a mysterious character, identified as the Man, who appears and disappears without explanation. Joana prefers not to know even his name, for she can better grasp his hidden reality through "other sources." She tells him: "I want nothing of your past life, neither your name, nor your dreams, nor to hear of your sufferings, the mystery clarifies more than any revelation. . ."

Throughout the book, Joana searches for something undefinable and elusive. A gnawing hunger propels her toward the arcane, but when familiarity dispels the mystery, Joana loses interest. For this reason, the Man must remain vague, anonymous, shrouded in secrecy. After her encounter with him, Joana finds herself withdrawing from "that zone where things have a set form and edges, where everything has a solid and immutable name." It is when she has found the fluid, unfathomable region of her soul, tht she at last feels a serge of freedom.

Stylistically, Near to the Wild Heart reflects the spirit of experimentation that characterized the New Narrative of the forties. Lispector plunges the reader into a jumble of images that at times seem incoherent. She changes voice chronology, she skips from one temporal context to another. Highly psychological and subjective, Near to the Wild Heart makes no pretence at historicity, although the social milieu that Lispector describes is defined. The book's convoluted structure is not gratuitous. Rather, it reflects the complexities of Joana's inner grappling. Joana is a forerunner not only of the protagonists of Lispector's later novels, but of the reflective, questioning female characters who abound in today's fiction.

The intricacies of Lispector's prose represent a true challenge for the translator. Giovanni Pontiero, Reader in Spanish and Portuguese Literature at the University of Manchester, England, has done a superb job of capturing the style and spirit of the novel.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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