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Hilda Hilst: A obscena senhora D (The Obscene Madame D)

Our heroine/narrator is Hillé. She had been married to Ehud (it is the Hebrew for love; this is almost certainly ironic). He is now dead. The marriage was not a particularly happy one and, throughout the book, despite his death, they continue to talk but not in a loving way.

His nickname for her is Madame D, with the D standing for dereliction. She is not sure why and challenges him on this, even after his death. Before he died, she moved into a little cupboard under the stairs. It is not entirely clear why and even less clear why she stays there even after his death. It may be something to do with her faith, as she seems to believe in God, if not in religion.

Part of the book is how she thinks about her life – she is sixty – and her marriage. She rejects him sexually as well as otherwise, and he cannot understand why. He tells her that she should see people more but she is opposed to that, preferring her own company. However, she asks, Why did he choose me? Maybe he believed that I would have answers. She does not have the answers but he does. I love you, crazy woman.

For her, life is matter of metaphysical searching. Man has a brain but can reach nothing, I know I exist but never know anything of the reason for my most infinitesimal gestures. Inevitably, she is not the first Brazilian writer to call on Kafka. I would have loved Franz K, we would have laughed together. However, My name is Nothingness.

After Ehud’s death, she really shuts herself off. Her blinds are always closed. I am not doing well. No one is doing well and I don’t understand the body nor the bloody logic of days nor the faces that stare me down in this village. The priest comes to visit and she asks him about evil. Why do you not feed your body goodness by accepting the kindness of others?, he asks. She replies Because the body is dead. She throws him out. A neighbour comes round bringing buns. She ignores the neighbour, who reports back to the others that Hillé is wandering round her house naked.

Above all, we focus on her relationship with Ehud, as they talk, he in the afterlife, she in this one. He even meets her late father (with whom she had issues) She asks the questions. Did they love each other? Is she somebody? What is her relationship with God and with her body and what is death?

This is not an easy book, as Hillé rants and raves and struggles with life and death, as well as with marriage, relationships, God, people and her own self. There is no easy answer or, indeed, any answer.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by Roswitha Kempf
First English translation in 2012 by Nightboat Books
Translated by Nathanaël