Mystery In São Cristóvão by Clarice Lispector, 1952
The magic trick:
Showing the daughter’s dissatisfaction with pleasant, safe, innocence
It’s difficult to know what to say about “Mystery In São Cristóvão,” a story so good and so dark that it defies description. In a week of brilliant Lispector stories, we close with the best of the bunch.
The symbolism is amazing. The epilogue, the way the events of the story leave the family ruined, is crushing. I think my favorite – or perhaps the most chilling – aspect of the story is the way the eldest daughter is presented at the beginning of the story. It recalls (vice versa, actually) Joyce Carol Oates’s classic “Where Are Going, Where Have You Been?” in the way that natural female sexual awakening gets confounded by male aggression.
The girl here is “finding her balance in the delicateness of her age,” which alone is just a beautiful description. Within the context of the story, and what happens, it’s heartbreaking. She is dissatisfied with the otherwise suburban ideal that is her family. Why? Is it simply a product of her stage of life? Is there something wrong with the family? Is there something false and problematic about the way they live? Is there something cruel about male culture in Brazil? Is there something tragic about the impossibility of innocence saved?
Yes, of course to all of that. It’s a testament to the story’s power that so many questions race to mind. It’s a tragic story, and usually that means straight lines, obvious emotions, dramatic conclusions. But that is not the case here. Nothing is simple. Nothing is obvious. Everything is awful. And that’s quite a trick on Lispector’s part.
Afterward they each went to their rooms. The old woman stretched out groaning benevolently. The father and mother, after locking up, lay down deep in thought and fell asleep. The three children, choosing the most awkward positions, fell asleep in three beds as if on three trapezes. The girl, in her cotton nightgown, opened her bedroom window and breathed in the whole garden with dissatisfaction and happiness. Unsettled by the fragrant humidity, she lay down promising herself a brand new outlook for the next day that would shake up the hyacinths and make the fruits tremble on their branches – in the midst of her meditation she fell asleep.
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