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Soulstorm, by Clarice Lispector (English translation by Alexis Levitin, New York: New Directions, 1989). Clarice Lispector (1925-1977) has long been considered Brazil's most important woman writer. The thirty pieces that comprise Soulstorm were originally published in Portuguse in 974 as two separate volumes--A Via Crucis do Corpo (The Stations of the Body) and Onde Estivestes de Noite (Where You Were at Night). The new English edition includes a brief introduction by Grace Paley, as well as an afterword by the translator.

These are not really stories, but fantasies, nightmares, myths and sketches that recreate a state of mind. They depict a disorderly world in which men and women are caught off guard by unexpected events or even by processess that, although perfectly natural, seem totally illogical.

True to its title, Soulstorm reveals the storms that rage in the souls of ordinary people. There is nothing exceptional about Lispector's characters. They are beauticians, secretaries, cabaret dancers, housewives. But within their souls reigns the turbulence caused by a subtle awareness of life's immutable truths. Aging, mortality, solitude, passion, fear--the primordial realties of human existence lacerate these unexpectional souls, causing constant turmoil.

Most of Lispector's characters are women, many of them in their seventies and eighties. These elderly individuals are not obsessed with death, but with life. Dona Candida Raposo, the octogenarian protagonist of "Footsteps," is so filled with the desire for pleasure that she goes to a gynecologist to find out how to deal with her problem. When she finds the solution, "silent fireworks" are the result. In "But It's Going to Rain," Maria Angelica de Andrade, aged sixty, takes a nineteen-year-old lover. Lispector explores the souls of going women and finds them filled with passion, for love--the life-force--operates as long as there is life. Yet, these are not happy tales. Lispector's elderly protagonists feel mocked by life; in their eyes, love at sixty or eighty is ridiculous and shameful. And still, to their mortification, they cannot stop loving.

What Lispector conveys so forcefully is that the aging woman--often treated in literature as a marginal being--is in essence no different from anyone else. For these women, as for Lispector's younger protagonists, love is always tinged with sadness. All these characters are caught between conflicting impulses: the desire to love and the desire to hide; the desire to love and the desire to die. In "The Departure of the Train," Sona Maria Rita, a woman in her late seventies, sits opposite Angela Pralina, in her late thirties, in a train. Both are fleeing--Dona Maria Rita, from her cold, ambitious daughter and Angela from an intellectual, hyper-rational lover. Both are searching for dignity and a sense of self. A silent, secret bond forms between them as the two reach out to each other, almost without speaking.

For Lispector, all human relations are both destructive and life-giving. Friendship, so necessary and satisfying, soon grows stale and can survive only as a fond memory. Furthrmore, the individual, always vulnerable, is in constant danger of being destroyed or sucked up by the "other." In "Plaza Maua," the beautiful Carla, a cabaret dancer, is devastated when her transvestite friend screams, "You are no woman at all! You don't even know how to fry an egg! And I do!" The attack on her femininity robs Carla of her sense of self. In "He Soaked Me Up," Aurelia and her homosexual friend Serjoca both fall for the same man. Serjoca, a beautician and make-up artist, literally wipes away Aurelia's face in order to eliminate her as a rival, but she rebels and finds the real face beyond make-up.

In Lispector's world, confusion reigns. Life is so complex that the individual loses track of things. In "A Complicated Case, "a woman begins to tell a story but gets lost in the details. She begins again and gets lost again. In frustration, she complains, "I don't know!" Over and over, Lispector's characters are confronted with situations that they cannot explain. And yet, life continues to be fascinating. "Sometimes people make me sick," concludes the narrator. "Then it passes, and I become curious and observant once again."

No matter how controlled and regimented Lispector's characters may be, the life-force rages within. That is why food--the nourishment required to keep life going--is such an important element in this book. Food is not just a symbol of nurturing, but of the appetites that keep us alive. Miss Algrave, the prim secretary who refuses to eat meat, is a "grave" or "tomb" in that her life is deadly order. However, once the primal energy within her is released, she delights in sex and in eating red meat, bloody meat. Similarly, the butcher in "Where You Were at Night" takes pleasure in the smell of raw flesh.

The pages of Soulstorm are filled with tension, as fate and will, passion and intellect, life-forces and death-forces constantly collide. The symbols of life--the horse, the sea--exude tremendous energy. Lispector's characters are caught in a great, silent awareness that both exhilarates and depresses them. They can never quite get a grip on things. "We are all failures," Lispector writes in "The Man Who Appeared." The best the artist can do is convey the messiness of human existence.

In piece after piece, ordinary events take on an extraordinary meaning, while extraordinary events are treated as commonplace. Illogical reactions seem logical and acceptable. In "The Body," two women who share one man finally decide that they love each other more than him, and so kill him and bury him in the garden. The policeman who investigates the case doesn't bother to file a report. Instead, he simply suggests that the women leave town. All involved treat the death more as a bother rather than a crime. The denouement is disconcertingly flat. Like many of the pieces in this book, "The Body" tips the reader off balance. We know the solution is wrong, but within the context, the policeman's decision seems perfectly justifiable. "That's that," Lispector concludes another story. We have to take life as we find it. Certain things simply have to be accepted.

Clarice Lispector was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to Brazil with her Russian-Jewish family as a child. Perhaps for this reason, there is little in these pieces, aside from names and places, that is distinctly Brazilian. They are concerned, rather, with universal problems of human existence.

Lispector's disjoined style may stem from the fact that she writes in a language that was not her first. Trnaslator Alexis Levitin does his best to capture Lispector's idiosyncracies, while at the same time producing fluid, readable prose. In most instances, he succeeds, although in a few, his choice of words is open to question. Despite these limited flaws, he had done a fine job of rendering into English a very difficult Portuguese text.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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