If your experience of transformative insect fiction is limited to the Kafkaesque, then it’s high time you met the ‘heralding quiver’ of cockroach antennae in The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. A novel that demands the utmost concentration, this Brazilian modern classic tells the story of a somewhat intense sculptress, who discovers a large cockroach in her home. Her initial attempt at extermination leaves the creature slowly dying in front of her eyes, a protracted process that sparks a full-blown existential crisis. Enlightenment, madness, or possibly both, await.
We know her as G.H, the initials embossed on her leather suitcases, themselves stored in the maid’s room, where this metaphysical tale begins. The maid has recently moved out and G.H decides to declutter the space. It appears however, that the ex-maid has conducted one final, ruthless tidying blitz, leaving the room as bare and antiseptic as in ‘an insane asylum from which dangerous objects have been removed.’
Nakedly sterile as the room may appear, there is something ghastly lurking in the wardrobe and G. H slides open the door to reveal a large cockroach crawling ponderously towards her. Panicked, she trips and falls to the floor, slamming the door on the creature and administering a wound which will take its time proving fatal. Sandwiched between the wardrobe and the foot of the bed, G.H is compelled to watch the cockroach die.
‘But its eyes were radiant and black. The eyes of a bride.’
In this sentence to chill even the most nonchalant reader, we see that G.H is not merely terrified of the insect. She is somehow being seduced by it, and as bodily matter oozes from its wound, she becomes aware of their ultimate kinship and desires ‘the God in whatever comes out of the roach’s belly.’
Cockroaches walked the earth before the dinosaurs, swarmed before the first human appeared. Here since time immemorial, they have secrets to impart about the very nature of existence. They possess ‘the grandiose indifference of a star’, a state of being that G.H now seeks to attain.
A hardcore reading experience that necessitates pausing at various intervals to come up for gulps of air, The Passion According to G.H really sets the brain juices fizzing. In a stream of consciousness meditation on notions of time, humanity, heaven and hell, G.H sheds her inauthentic self and attempts to be at one with her cockroach teacher.
‘I was watching my transformation from chrysalis into moist larva, my wings were slowly shrinking back scorched. And a belly entirely new and made for the ground, a new belly was being reborn.’
Hailed as one of Brazil’s finest, Lispector has been described as ‘one of the twentieth century’s most mysterious writers. Although not perhaps for the faint-hearted, this avant-garde novel is an addictive and intoxicating read.
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector is published by Penguin Classics, 208 pages.