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The Foreign Legion.

The Foreign Legion, by Clarice Lispector. Trans. and Afterwood Giovanni Pontiero. New York: New Directions, 1992

Like so much of Clarice Lispector's work, The Foreign Legion defies classification. The first half of the book consists of thirteen stories that reveal the author's keen eye for life's ironies. The second, entitled "Chronicles," contains miscellany that ranges from travel writing to art criticism, from aphorisms to scraps of conversations with children, from character sketches to a short drama on adultery.

The stories, for the most part, are plotless vignettes that capture the beauty, chaos and anguish of everyday existence. "The Sharing of Bread" starts out as a spoof on empty social obligations and develops into a celebration of that most commonplace of rites: eating together. Food becomes a bond in this story. The vegetables come alive, tempting the diners with their seductive sensuality: "pineapples of a malign savageness, oranges golden and tranquil, gherkins bristling like porcupines, cucumbers stretched tight over watery flesh..."

Children are the focus of many of Lispector's stories. Fascinated with their complexity, the author never reduces youngsters to idealized, monolithic cherubs, but rather explores their malicious innocence. In "The Egg and the Chicken," she portrays a precocious, aggressive, irksome little girl who comes to bother her periodically. The author deftly exposes the profound loneliness and desperation that in the end motivate the child to destroy the thing she most desires. In other stories Lispector captures the awkwardness of adolescence. In "The Misfortunes of Sofia" she describes a young girl's ambivalent feelings for her teacher. "The Message" is like a photograph of the souls of two awkward teenagers--"involuntarily young," groping anxiously at adulthood.

Equally moving are her portraits of the elderly. "Journey to Petropolis" is a heart-rending sketch of an abandoned old woman who slips in and out of lucidity. Wandering through the streets, she remembers her dead husband and children without rancor, regret or sentimentality. She is aware of men, but has the vague sensation of no longer being a woman. With her sagging skin and her dirty clothes, she makes other people uncomfortable, and so they shoo her away. They treat her as though she were invisible. Sometimes they eat in front of her and never think to offer her a cup of coffee. Yet, she maintains a measure of pride and good breeding. When at last she dies, it seems to be more the result of a decision on her part than an act of God.

Lispector writes with humor and compassion, poking fun at herself as well as the human condition. In "The Fifth Story," one of her funniest pieces, she mocks the tendency of writers and intellectuals to elaborate endlessly, finding significance in the tritest incident. The story is actually five tales in one. The first, called "How to Kill Cockroaches," simply tells how the narrator, troubled with roaches, got some advice from her neighbor on how to get rid of them. With each subsequent telling, the focus changes and the story becomes more complicated. In the second, the narrator focuses on the perverse pleasure she derives from preparing the poison and killing the roaches. In the third, the roaches' corpses become eery statues. In the fourth, the killing takes on existential dimensions. The fifth explodes into a philosophical treatise.

The "Chronicles" highlight Lispector's insight and magnificent powers of observation. In "An Angel's Disquiet" she describes the almost spiritual sense of deliverance she feels upon finding a taxi in a pouring rain. However, when she allows another woman to share her cab, she must grabble with contradictory feelings of virtue and annoyance. The woman thanks her endlessly for her kindness, calling her an angel, but then, clearly taking her for a dupe, abuses by insisting that she be taken to her destination first so that she won't miss a premiere. "Was I an angel destined to salvage premieres?" the authors asks herself. Abandoning her saintly posture, the author suddenly becomes fiercely territorial in defense of her taxi. Through amusing portraits such as this one, Lispector exposes the selfishness or ambiguity underlying many acts of kindness. At the same time, she reveals the contradictions inherent in us all.

Some of the most interesting pieces are travel notes. Brasilia impresses her as "a prison in the open air." She laments that "there is nowhere the escape to," and so "they ensnared me in freedom." Berne Cathedral makes her feel as though she were passing through its walls, "Not to find myself touching the other side of transparency, but my own transparency."

Other pieces deal with writing. She rejects that notion of style, calling her prose "a humble search." She says of her stories, "Once they leave my pen, I too find them surprising and even strange." She says that she is unable to write when she is upset, for then she is anxious for time to pass; "and to write is to prolong time, to break it down into particles of seconds while giving to each of them an irreplaceable life."

Lispector constantly throws her readers off balance. She is a champion of one-liners, for example, "Just to have been born has ruined my health." In her hands the most mundane incident becomes an adventure and those things that usually go unnoticed become sources of unexpected inspiration.

The Foreign Legion is a beautiful book--uplifting, funny, insightful and profound. Lispector published it in 1964, after she had already established her reputation as one of Brazil's most innovative writers. We have had to wait until now, nearly fifteen years after her death, for this fine translation by Giovanni Pontiero.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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