March 28, 2020: “Pig Latin” by Clarice Lispector, Translated by Katrina Dodson

Happy Anniversary, Story366!


Today’s post is the 500th post on Story366! Congratulations to me, I guess, for keeping this weird and wonderful mission on course. The great abundance of those posts came in the inception year, 2016, when I wrote on 366 stories/collections/authors in 366 days. This year, I’ve now written eighty-eight posts, a scattershot of books in-between the leap years. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of books, a lot of authors, and a lot of styles, voices, characters, plots, paragraph, sentences, and words. I can honestly say, after absorbing so much short story, that I’m a better reader, a smarter critic, and a more inspired writer.

Story366 serves a lot of purposes, and primarily, it educates me. Sure, I post these on a blog, for the public, and shout about them all over social media. But thousands upon thousands of readers do what I do, enjoy book, get smarter, etc., without sharing that, without reporting it in blog form. It’s just what reading is, a personal endeavor, and I’ve benefitted from in in infinitesimal way.

As a close second, my mission has always been to exhalt these names, hoping that others will see what I see, get interested in these authors, discover some great stories. I’m hoping, of course, that I can help sell some books, help these authors’ careers progress, even if by a reader or two. The fact that this blog will always exist, as an archive, makes that all the more possible. I think I’ve done that, too, though that’s more difficult for me to gauge.

Overall, thanks to everyone who reads this blog, who comments, who likes the posts, and who shares them, and to all those who have sent me books to read and write about. Without this type of encouragement, I would not have kept going. This has become part of my life and identity and that makes me very, very happy.

Here’s to another five hundred, and beyond. Keep writing stories, keep writing books. I’ll keep doing my thing, too.

For today’s post, I wanted to do a special writer, a luminary, the way I started 2016 with Adam Johnson, ended it with Junot Díaz, and started this year with Zadie Smith. A quick scan through my to-read pile revealed a no-brainer choice,  Clarice Lispector‘s Complete Stories, out in 2018 from New Directions. The entire book is translated by Katrina Dodson and was edited by Benjamin Moser, her primary English-language biographer. This book was quite an event when it came out in 2018, as Lispector’s stories had never been collected before, not even in her native Portuguese. So, getting ahold of this book meant instant box set. While I’m someone who likes to collect stories collections, this edition makes it all-too-easy to just have it all, all at once.

A bit of background on my experience with Lispector: In college, for some English or comparative lit class, I bought a Norton Anthology of short fiction or world literature, and some University of Illinois TA was smart enough to put Lispector’s story “A Chicken” on the syllabus. I read that story and liked it, but ever since then, haven’t read much, if any, of Lispector’s work. Still, whenever someone mentions her, I either think or say, “A Chicken!” as if I were some expert on Lispector. Sadly, that kind of knowledge of trivia can actually work, can make you seem like you’re part of a richer conversation. It’s similar to my passing knowledge of drug use, The Smiths, and Frederico Fellini. If anyone would ever atempt to engage in deeper conversation with me on any of those subjects, I can always yell out, “It’s like the time I was smoking a blunt, listening to Meat Is Murder, while La Dolce Vida was playing in the background.” Then I could fake a heart attack to weasel my way out of further questioning. Lispector and “A Chicken” are on that list. (Though who reads a short story while listening to an album and watching a movie? Must be some prime blunt.)

Complete Stories is arranged sequentially, meaning all of Lispector’s collections can be found in this book, in order. The table of contents is handy in splitting the stories up by collection, so it’s easy to figure out what stories are included in which books. Today I read a couple-few stories from each book; normally I try to read three or four stories per collection, but since Complete Stories is so massive and covers so much time, I wanted to get a broader scope of Lispector’s efforts.

I’m not going to summarize every story I read for today, as I normally would do, but will point out which stories I especially enjoyed (which, by the way, were pretty much all the stories I read): “The Triumph”; “The Escape”; “Love”; “A Chicken” again; “The Smallest Woman in the World”; “The Dinner”; “The Egg and the Chicken”; “The Fifth Story”; “Profiles of Chosen Beings”; “Eat Up, My Son”; “The Servant”; “Report on the Thing”; “Better Than to Burn”; “But It’s Going to Rain”; and finally, the coda, “One Day Less,” which is in a two-part section called “Final Stories,” which I assume are the last pieces Lispector wrote before she passed in 1977. It was a splendid hour or two of my life, the time I spent with these stories, and I hope to engage in this collection more, until I’ve read it all. I see this book working the same way Barthelme’s 40 Stories and 60 Stories does for me now, books I keep on hand, read from, reference when I need to be inspired.

To sum up Lispector’s work is a gargantuan task, one I might not have the critical vocabulary to properly tackle. I’ll say that Lispector does have a Post-Modern sensibility, like Berthelme, her stories beyond the simple Freytag mold that more traditional writers lean on in their work. The stories often employ a third-person omniscient narrator, and even when they don’t, the noticeable psychic distance makes it seem like they do. Often, I felt like I was reading a fairy tale or fable when I was reading these stories, as if there was a grand narrator trying to teach me something as I read. There’s an absurdity and a surrealness to these stories, though some are completely realistic, too. Lispector’s tone and voice bring gravitas to each of her works, make even the smallest story, with the most trifling of premise, seem like a masterwork. That’s probably because they are.

Runner-up candidates or today’s focus included “The Egg and the Chicken,” a nice companion piece to “A Chicken,” and “The Smallest Woman in the Word,” which is one of Lispector’s less-subtle examinations of race and identity. I chose “Pig Latin,” which explores a lot of the themes Lispector used, but in the end, has a slightly easier plot to describe here.

“Pig Latin” is about Cidinha, a Brazilian English teacher who embarks on a journey by train to Rio, where she’ll take a plane to New York and hone her craft. She is excited to be heading to America, but her enthusiasm is soon quelled by two seedy-looking men who board the train and sit in the bench across from her. Cidinha and the men are the only people in their car, which of course makes Cidinha nervous—that would make a woman nervous anywhere, in any era.

Cidinha, a speaker of many languages, hears the two men speaking in a tongue she can’t understand. Before long, she realizes they’re speaking Pig Latin (which must also exist in Portuguese … but why wouldn’t it?). She huddles into herself, stares out the window, and begins to translate. The two men, it seems, find her attractive and want to have sex with her (but say it in a much cruder manner). If this isn’t disturbing enough, the talk escalates and the men discuss raping her, then murdering her, then what they’ll do with her body. Cidinha is obviously distressed.

As a woman who’s never traveled along—and also happens to be a virgin—Cidinha does the only thing she can think of: She begins to act like a prostitute, thinking she’ll spook the men. She unbuttons her blouse, gyrates seductively, and liberally applies lipstick. She also hums and stares at the men, her would-be assailants, kind of turning the tables on advancement. Her plan works, it seems, as she has indeed bugged the rapists out. Soon, they are, still in Pig Latin, discussing plans to call the police and turn Cidinha in to authorities.

Apparently, in Brazil, in this era, a woman acting like a prostitute is illegal, as at the next stop, Cidinha is arrested and removed from the train. On her way off the platform, she spies a little girl who is boarding the train, a girl who looks at her with disgust. Cidinha has perhaps saved her life, but she is ashamed—and she’s going to miss her flight to New York.

Eventually, Cidinha is released from custody, only to discover an abysmal horror. I won’t reveal that here, but there’s some existential irony at work. In her bio, I read that Lispector was heavily influenced by Sartre, and I see that influence here. “Pig Latin” is a horrific story, but it’s a great story, one that holds up today as well as ever.

So, five hundred posts in. I am so pleased I marked this occasion with such a milestone of a book, Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories. Lispector is one of the twentieth century’s masters and now I have all of her stories here, at my fingertips. I suggest you do the same, place this book close to where you read and write. It’s a reference book as much as a collection of art, a guide to how to do the thing we do and excel at it.