Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In its lack of traditional storytelling structure, Clarice Lispector’s “The Fifth Story” is very reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings.” It really isn’t a story at all; it’s five different possible approaches to telling one.
First, Lispector presents a dry, flat, “just-the-facts” version of the story she’s about to tell. A woman is troubled by cockroaches in her house. She is advised by a friend to make a mixture of equal parts of sugar, flour and gypsum; the sugar and flour will entice the cockroaches to eat the mixture, and the gypsum will dessicate their insides. She does so, and when she comes back out into the kitchen the following morning, the cockroaches are dead. This isn’t a story as much as journalism.
In the second version of the story, the narrator ruminates about the morality of killing the cockroaches. They don’t belong to her; they simply crawl up the pipes from downstairs. They mean her no harm. They aren’t obsessing about her at all, yet she is obsessing about ending their lives. When she comes out into the kitchen in the morning, she finds their corpses, “huge and brittle.” This isn’t a story as much as a homily.
In the third story, the cockroaches have ceased to be cockroaches at all; they are “statues”— shapes, unmoving and inanimate. The sunlight is no longer sunlight, it is “patches of light and shade.” The narrator compares the corpses of the dead cockroaches to the statues formed by the lava-coated bodies in the ruins of Pompeii. They, also, had no intimation of disaster until it overtook them. This isn’t a story as much as an elegy.
In the fourth story, the narrator recognizes the futility of the extermination process. There will always be more cockroaches; more will arrive every night; there is no end to it. This isn’t a story as much as nihilism.
The fifth story is entitled “Leibnitz and the Transcendence of Love in Polynesia.” We have now progressed past the point where there is a story at all; there is simply verbiage.
So where, exactly, is the heart of the story about the killing of the cockroaches? The story, Lispector suggests, is where you find it. And because the story as a whole is called “The Fifth Story”—suggesting that the fifth version is the most significant—the author may also be suggesting we’ve lost our grasp on the true meaning of a story in the first place.
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