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Helena Parente Cunha: Mulher no Espelho (Woman Between Mirrors)

This is a story about a nameless woman, whom I shall call the author, writing about another nameless woman, to some extent the author’s alter ego, whom I shall call the character. The author may well be writing about the character, but the character very much has a mind of her own. She admits that she only exists as a fictional character but the writer doesn’t know the character as well as she thinks she does and the character often gets away from her. She wasn’t the one who created me. I have made myself.

Are they the same? She is she and I am I, the character says but they do mix emotions unintentionally. However, the author tries to carry out a pseudo-Freudian analysis of the character, though the character retorts, she is mistaken.

The two women are different and this is where the book becomes interesting. It is the author who is the more feminist, misbehaving when young and more outgoing. She used to run away, never married and went out with a lot of men. She despised her authoritarian father. The character, however, was better behaved. I accepted my father preferring my brother. I accepted my husband not letting me go out alone. I accepted living at the beck and call of my three children. I accepted.. She goes on to say I loved and she hated our father. Note that she uses the singular for father but then quickly corrects herself, saying our fathers. She adds a woman must know her place. My husband thinks I should live exclusively for him. This makes me very happy. A woman must not let herself be led by whims and excessive demands of her family. That’s the only way I can live. However, when she says that she respects the moral principles of her husband, the author challenges her, saying that her husband watches pornography and visits prostitutes. The character has no response for that.

In the early part of the book, the character is clearly going to conform with the patriarchal society. My mother’s rules for living. In the first place, her husband, second, her husband, third, her husband . The character seems to think this is the only way to live. The father is all powerful. We were all insignificant around him, all-powerful, commanding or countermanding, and there we were, down at his feet, submissive, subjugated, subdued, submerged, subtracted.

However, now she is a wife and mother (of three sons), things are different. Her sons are behaving badly. All your care, all your devotion, all your sacrifice went for nothing. Now they’re killing you. They’ve already killed you.. One is doing drugs, one is gay and one is an alcoholic.

Things are no better with her husband. He drinks, he is overweight and he is having an affair with the housemaid. Sex is not fun under the weight of his big sweaty body that can never conquer me or hurt me. She adds little by little I stopped making decisions about things. I want what my husband wants.

The author taunts her about her childhood. There was the time when she put on lipstick (aged seventeen) and when her father realised what she had done he hit her so hard that she bled. At a later date, a boy kissed her and she was worried that she would become pregnant.

While we are learning about the patriarchal society she faces, we are also following this split personality. It seems (reasonably) clear that the character and the author are variations of the same person. The English title is Woman Between Mirrors while the Portuguese says Woman in the Mirror. In other words, she is looking at herself, both literally and figuratively, in the mirror, seeing the woman she is and the woman she might have been. Indeed, on several occasions, the two personae give different accounts of the same event.

Back to the story, we learn that things are getting worse. Her sons are worse, her husband is worse. He has a vulgar taste for lamebrain women at a moderate price and it is she that goes wild, even getting involved with Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion.

Parente Cunha is clearly attacking the patriarchal society in Brazil, as Heloneida Studart did in her Selo das despedidas (later: Sem dizer adeus) [Seal of Farewell]. While Studart used a realist approach, Parente Cunha goes for a clever, modernist approach, which can be a bit confusing but is an excellent way of showing the way women in Brazil are torn between being good wives and good mothers, according to the rules of the patriarchal society, and being themselves. However, one thing both women agree on is that most men are sexist and controlling, and that women must assert themselves more. That, of course, is undoubtedly the case all over the world.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by Fundação Catarinense de Cultura
First English translation in 1989 by University of Texas Press
Translated by Fred Pittman Ellison and Naomi Lindstrom.