Man meets tragic, doomed woman. Tragic, doomed woman lives tragically, teaches man about life, the universe, and everything—especially writing. Man becomes a better person; tragic, doomed woman dies. Tragically.
Okay, obviously there are some differences. But you've got your struggling writer, your sickly unfortunate, and a tragic (or almost-tragic) ending. The point is, Clarice Lispector was a smart lady, and The Hour of the Star (1977) is self-aware about the literary tradition it's working with. She even has her narrator worry about the social (and gender) inequities that make him the one writing and her the one dying.
Clarice Lispector didn't know that The Hour of the Star would be her last book before she died of cancer in 1977. But she did know what it meant to be from the Northeast of Brazil and what it meant to feel permanently displaced: she was actually born as "Chaya" to a Jewish family in Ukraine in 1920, where anti-Jewish pogroms threatened her family. In 1922, the family emigrated to her mother's relatives in Brazil—in Alagoas, the very state in which The Hour of the Star's protagonist is born.
The family all took on new names, but their early years were hard. They were poor, and her mother died when she was only nine. Eventually, Lispector was able to study at good schools and eventually decided that she wanted to be a writer. And write she did, publishing novels that have earned her a place among the twentieth century's greatest writers.
In The Hour of the Star, Lispector speaks through an affluent, sophisticated, but angst-ridden narrator, Rodrigo S.M., to tell the story of Macabéa, a poor, undernourished, unattractive, inexperienced nineteen-year-old girl from Northeast Brazil who struggles to survive in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. If you think that the plot sounds tailor-made to win awards at serious international film festivals, you'd be right: in 1985, the novella was adapted into a film by Suzana Amaral, winning a Best Actress award in the 36th Berlin International Film Festival of 1986.
What's weird is that the film focuses entirely on Macabéa to the extent that the narrator and all of his philosophical musings are cut out. Although it probably makes for a better movie, we can't help feeling that something is missing without him and we're pretty sure that nothing can replace reading the actual book. Luckily for those of us who aren't fluent in the book's original Portuguese, A hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star) has been translated into English twice, first by Giovanni Pontiero in 1986 and then by Benjamin Moser in 2011.
Why all the fuss about this short, depressing little book? Well, Lispector's final and best known work brings together all of the philosophical themes that she considered over her writing career: the nature of truth, the meaning of existence, the power of language, the finality of death, and the role of spirituality. Heavy stuff, right? Famous feminist Hélène Cixous once said that Lispector went beyond all of the heavy-hitting male philosophers: "there, further ahead, where the philosopher loses his breath, she continues, still further, beyond all knowledge" (source).
But cheer up: beyond the complex abstractions and Major Questions, the text also offers an important social commentary about the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The real story of this poor, starving girl desperate for love and attention is actually the real story of millions of others just like her in the world. You don't have to have a degree in philosophy to understand The Hour of the Star (although we're not saying it wouldn't help). All you need is a heart.
In the 80s teen classic The Breakfast Club, a nerdy kid named Brian has to write an essay answering one simple question: "Who are you?"
Well, he doesn't seem to find it so simple, because he just sits there with a big case of writer's block, asking out loud over and over again, "Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?"
We're going to go out on a limb here and say that, if you were forced to sit down and write an essay answering, "Who are you?" (say, for a college application essay), you'd have a big case of writer's block, too. And you'd have that in common with Rodrigo S.M., Clarice Lispector's narrator in The Hour of the Star.
This narrator is paralyzed by wondering not just who he is, but who his protagonist is. Macabéa is a nineteen-year-old girl struggling to survive in the slums of Rio de Janeiro: poor, starving, ugly, and alone—but not unhappy. In fact, she's full of a kind of inner grace that even the urbane and sophisticated narrator can't achieve. As he watches her go about her short, tragic life, he can't help but wonder: What, after all, is the point?
Like Rodrigo, most everyone has asked him or herself these questions. Between the ages of, say, thirteen and nineteen, you might find yourself asking them about seven times a day. But the thing is, Macabéa never has. It has literally never occurred to her to ask one single question about why life has to be the way it is. She's too poor and hungry to think about anything beyond the next meal and the next day.
The utter strangeness of someone like this, who exists on a level that's at once below questioning but also, in a strange way, above it, might make us start to question our own questions. What's the point of asking yourself who you are? What are you trying to achieve? And—this is the hard one—does your being who you are (almost certainly well-nourished, educated, and privileged, at least in comparison to large parts of the world) have something to do with who Macabéa is? In some way are we all the yellow Mercedes?
(If you just have to know what the yellow Mercedes has to do with anything, check out "What's Up With the Ending?"—but don't say we didn't warn you about spoilers, because: spoilers.)
In other words, The Hour of the Star doesn't just want us to ask, "Who am I?" It also wants us to ask, "Who are you? And how can I know you?" Because—maybe—that's really the more important question.