Cover image for Clara
Valenzuela, Luisa, 1938-
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Uniform Title:
Hay que sonreír. English
Publication Information:
Pittsburgh, PA : Latin American Literary Review Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
159 pages ; 22 cm.
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Clara, a free-spirited prostitute in Buenos Aires who is full of vague plans and dreams, tries to shield herself from an ominous world. Answering only to her own laws, she reacts with inner strength and may even save herself from certain death. Clara mixes social commentary with tender humor, capturing a segment of humanity in Buenos Aires during the turbulent 1950s.

Author Notes

Luisa Valenzuela is one of the many women who have emerged as major voices in Latin American fiction. Her elliptic metaphoric pieces broaden the definitions of short story and novel. Strange Things Happen Here (1977) is close to an allegory of the Argentine political situation, but it shuns conventional realism to blur reality in a hallucinatory style. Julio Cortazar said of Valenzuela that she lucidly charts "the seldom-chosen course of a woman deeply anchored in her condition, conscious of discriminations that are still horrible all over our continent, but, at the same time, filled with joy in life that permits her to surmount both the elementary stages of protest and an overestimation of women in order to put herself on a perfectly equal footing with any literature---masculine or not." (Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Valenzuela's reputation as one of Latin America's foremost authors will be enhanced by the U.S. publication of her latest novel. An Argentinian streetwalker's story is not told in the magical-realism tradition of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez but through a much grittier lens. Clara leaves her country town for a better life in the city, drifts into prostitution and relationships with a series of selfish men, and comes to a bad end. But Clara's own hopeful nature brings a touch of magic even to these sordid circumstances. She drifts from one man to the next because she sees every man as a possible savior. But along comes a fortune-teller, whom she meets at a carnival. She is so enchanted with his exotic act and good looks that she marries him. Partly because he disdains work, Clara starts a carnival act of her own: the Aztec Flower, who--by a trick of mirrors--appears to be a head without a body. Symbol of Clara as victim? But perhaps also of her unshakeable sense of wonder. --Mary Ellen Quinn

Publisher's Weekly Review

This crisp translation of the first major novel of Argentine writer Valenzuela, published in 1966 in Spanish, and in an English edition (now out of print) by Harcourt in 1976, is raw, sensuous and stylish as a tango. After her father makes it clear she is no longer welcome at home, country girl Clara comes to Buenos Aires and drifts into a life of prostitution, though all she really wants is to find a husband. During her descent into the city's underworld, Clara encounters such denizens as Don Mario, a fat hotel manager who teaches her the tricks of the trade; Victor, a self-involved refrigerator salesman who is her boyfriend for a while; Tono Cruz, a bank employee with an engaging personality but a face so ugly it reminds her that "the perfect whore shouldn't concern herself with her customers' physical appearance"; impotent tango singer Carlos; Maria Magdalena, a hard-edged old-timer in the profession who offers Clara advice but no affection. Finally, Clara falls in with Alejandro, a magician, who subjects her remorselessly to his will until she is resigned to an endlessly bleak future. A writer renowned for her lyrical, expressionistic exploration of male-dominated Argentine society, Valenzuela here chronicles the bizarre, brutal existence of characters on the fringes, building to a hair-raising climax. Taking the stage name "Aztec Flower," Clara becomes part of Alejandro's magic show, enacting the "decapitated woman... a secret, jealously guarded for millennia since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs." Living literally on the razor's edge, Clara debates whether to finally take her life into her own hands in this harsh, provoking yet graceful tale of exploitation. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Poor, sweet, stupid Clara--her destiny is clear (claro) to everyone, to the men in her life, to the reader, except herself. At 17 she steps off a bus from the Argentine countryside and into the life of a Buenos Aires prostitute who lives with a series of evermore psychologically abusive men. Clara, however, remains almost frighteningly optimistic and sustains herself with two hopes: one to reach the ocean, the other to find a job where she can use her head instead of her body. She is successful only in the latter, as she finds a slot as the bodiless head in a scruffy roadside carnival. In the midst of her sordid life, Clara remains playfully endearing. Although Valenzuela has lived in the United States for many years, she remains one of Latin America's best-known contemporary writers of innovative fiction. Clara was first published as Hay que sonreir in 1966, and first issued in English as part of Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (Harcourt, 1976). Valenzuela is best known for The Lizard's Tail; other English translations include Black Novel with Argentines and Symmetries. This modern, picaresque tale is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.--Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One How deadening it is to wait! With her left foot she scratched her right leg, a gesture that meant resignation. Her name was Clara, and she was fed up. Who would ever get the crazy idea to put on new shoes just to wait, and make a date in a place where you can't sit down? And that Victor -- he made me show up before eight o'clock to avoid the crowds, and now it's almost eight thirty and no sign of him! I ought to know him by now: he goes around talking about peace, and he sucks in everything he says like it was smoke from an expensive cigarette, but he's got no peace. Because as long as he has someone to impress, he won't even remember our date. And poor Clara, too worn out from struggling against her own defects -- she's not about to attack the few virtues he has left at this stage of the game. She was on time, naturally. She'd been waiting for him since before eight, and no doubt he was sitting at the counter in some bar, talking to some stranger and sagely uttering words like "silence," only to fall silent afterwards and savor the silence he himself had brought on.     In Victor's life, boredom and monotony had nothing to do with each other, and his repertory was repeated so often that, even from a distance, Clara could follow his conversations with his soon-to-be neighbors at the bar:     "Well, sure, you've got to take it with soda," the other guy would conclude when he had grown tired of Victor's long diatribes.     But he wasn't about to let himself be cowed by any irrefutable cliché or lose the opportunity to have the last word:     "Not with soda, my friend; soda makes bubbles. It deceives you and distracts you. Take it from me, life should be drunk with clean, pure water, the kind that quenches your thirst."     Unfortunately, Clara was all too familiar with Victor's bons mots , although she never knew exactly when he would decide to dump them on her. At first, of course, she had listened to him attentively, hoping to become his initiate into the secret of harmony and the golden mean, as he called them, but very quickly she discovered that he spoke the same way to everyone and that he had no special mystery to reveal to her; at that point, she chose to wait for him -- not too impatiently -- while he spewed out his need to be misunderstood on others.     The street lamps in the plaza began to light up one by one, the hands of the clock in the English Tower mercilessly showed eight thirty, and the big neon star of Parque Retiro started blinking on and off above Clara's head, as if it were real. The sky had turned a deep blue, and for a moment she was able to think of the sea and feel happy. That precise moment of happiness can sometimes redeem an entire day, a month, even a year of indifference and impenetrability, because the sea was one of Clara's favorite dreams. The people rushing toward the station through a curtain of humidity lumbered as heavily as underwater creatures, and even though the Southern Cross hadn't yet appeared, she fixed her gaze on the exact spot where it was hiding, and she tried not to move or think so she could discern it sooner.     That's how she waited for everything: with that weariness caused by waiting. She even waited for Victor ... without too many expectations, it's true, because for her, everything came too late.     It's never too late for happiness, a friend once said, trying to console her. But the only fragments of that saying that remained in her consciousness were the words late and never , which got muddled together forever in a single, irredeemable truth. That's how it was with Victor, who remembered things at the wrong time, when they were no longer essential.     She raised her left arm to look at her wrist, but she left off in mid-gesture. Just in time she remembered that she had pawned her wristwatch three days before. It had been a real sacrifice to give it up, but they needed the money, and Victor was such a serious guy that he wouldn't let her work the streets, like before. Streetwalker, as they say ... And there was Victor, always going on about how he was a decent man, and a decent man would never allow his wife to be a prostitute.     As if they were married, Clara said to herself but decided to keep quiet because you could never have the last word with him. For that reason, she had decided to pawn the watch, as well as a silver mate handed down from her grandfather, rather than get involved in useless arguments. Of course she carefully put away the receipts, waiting for the day when she might redeem her treasures. And in that business of waiting, she was an apt pupil. Taught by Lady Experience herself.     The enormous English Tower, with its brick body and its illuminated sphere on top, would not allow her to forget about time passing. You couldn't even see the squares of grass on the plaza any more, and the streams of water from the slowly-revolving hoses had already been turned off. Naturally, Victor hadn't shown up yet. No doubt, it was his destiny to arrive too late, just like the night she met him. The shell of anguish that had been growing around her little by little for so many years had locked her inside, and no one could pull it off her any more. She wondered whether it wouldn't just be easier to leave everything in the hands of fate and shrug off all her responsibilities, but she realized that her anguish wasn't his fault.     It wasn't that her former line of work had made her unhappy, no. Or that she had liked it, either. She did it without thinking, like when she arrived from Tres Lomas and got off the train at the Once Station. In her hometown she had been told that the prettiest part of the capital was Palermo Park, with its lake, its swans, and such a well-tended rose garden. But when she descended the flight of stairs from the station, she found herself facing a square, uninviting plaza, with a square, uninviting monument, and lots of unfamiliar people scurrying along the wide avenues, breathing fumes from the millions of buses and streetcars (also unfamiliar) that squealed around the corners. She walked around the plaza once, lugging her cardboard suitcase, until she ran into an elderly man with a kind face and decided to ask him how to get to Palermo. The man thought she was talking about Palermo Station and told her to take bus number 268. Because of a simple misunderstanding attributable to her suitcase, Clara arrived at Palermo Station, where there were no trees, let alone lakes with swans, and where the only roses she saw were a few that were wilting in the window of one of those florist shops that smell like cemeteries. But next door to the florist's there was a window with silk and lace blouses and bell-shaped skirts.     Since she had time to kill, she hung around looking in the windows. Her father had told her she was all grown-up now, and she could go look for a good job in the city, and she didn't even have time to object, because her father had locked himself back up in the bedroom where she had caught him with the butcher's wife. What else could she do but take off her apron, put on her coat, and leave the house docilely without waiting for her mother, who would perhaps get back from her long trip to Quemú-Quemú in a few days. She walked about a mile to the station and took the 11:45 train in order to see the park in the city, but once she got there, the blouses tempted her and kept her glued to the shop window.     From far off, a sailor who had been watching her with a glint in his eye waited a long time before deciding to approach her:     "All alone, baby?" and then, "Pretty blouses, aren't they, honey?"     "Uh-huh."     "But you're even prettier."     She laughed. The boy seemed nice, and since he was in the navy, his uniform was blue, not ugly green like the others. For that reason alone, blue versus green, Clara agreed to have a drink with him at the bar across the street. She was hungry, besides, but she didn't know how to go about ordering the sandwich special. She quaffed the martini in a single gulp in order to reach the olive at the bottom, and she sucked insistently on the pit. But such a meager mouthful didn't assuage her hunger, and she was afraid that the rumbling in her stomach would start to grow too loud. She asked a question to conceal the noise:     "Is the sea pretty?"      "Hey, I don't know. I've been in the service for a year already, and we haven't even gotten out of port once. The guys say the ship is such a old tub that it can only float on the river, where the water's all thick and filthy."     He laughed, and Clara could see he had two teeth missing, which detracted somewhat from his charm. Besides, this business about never having seen the sea must be kind of devastating for a sailor. Without feeling guilty, she accepted a second martini, and a third. By then she felt courageous enough to order the special, but he had worked out a better plan:     "How about if we take a little walk to the hotel and go upstairs. They have nice little rooms, pretty and warm ..."     Clara's elbow was resting on the table, her head in her hand. Outside, it must have grown cold and dark, and the bar was so lovely, with so many windows and curtains, a little dirty, maybe, but so lovely. She looked at the sailor indifferently. Everything seemed lovely and indifferent at the same time, and she felt like she was floating. She shrugged her shoulders, smiled a little out of the corner of her mouth, thinking she was making a face and answered:     "If you want to ..."     The room on the second floor, with its iron bed, was anything but pretty. And it was cold. The man who took them upstairs ran to close the window. "You gotta air 'em out in between customers, right?" and he left them alone.     Clara didn't even notice him undressing her. Once she was in bed, she tried to ask his name, although there really wasn't much of him left without his uniform, and his name became garbled in his moans. He had to get up at 5 AM and return to the ship, but since he was the great deflowerer, he was so pleased with himself that he left one hundred pesos on the nightstand for Clara and ran downstairs to tell the others about the great score he'd made in Plaza Italia. Now he was a real man.     Clara, on the other hand, awoke rather late with a terrible headache and a strange, pasty taste in her mouth. She began to recall what had happened, but the money she found on the nightstand helped her overcome her now useless shame. She dressed slowly and, standing before the mirror, assumed a deliberately vacant expression that might help her step out of the elevator and walk through the café with dignity. But as she passed the cash register, the boss approached her, and she lost her composure.     "Miss, you're very wise to honor our humble establishment. Here you'll find discretion and every comfort you'll need, if you'd care to return with another acquaintance."     He cleared his throat, straightened his tie, and slyly slipped thirty pesos into her coat pocket. Terrified, Clara looked around her. There were hardly any customers at that hour of the morning, and she left thinking that life in the city wasn't too pleasant after all, but it wasn't as bad as they had told her, either. And it was so easy ... She walked into another café and ordered hot chocolate with croissants while she made her calculations and then returned to the shop window where the blouses were, this time to look at the prices.     She stayed there for a much longer time than it took to determine that the one hundred thirty pesos she had earned -- she hesitated at the term earned , preferring obtained -- well, anyway, that one hundred thirty pesos plus the twenty seven she had brought with her from home wouldn't pay for something that cost the exorbitant sum of one hundred ninety-nine pesos and ninety cents. She stood looking into the shop window, eyeing the street in the secret hope of seeing the sailor again, but finally she got bored and began walking towards downtown, studying all the passing uniforms.     She had forgotten about the shop windows until she came to a German restaurant adorned with wood, with a sign that said: Inside Patio. It was already noon, and some hot chocolate with croissants weren't enough to fill the stomach of a person like her who had such a physically wearing occupation. Inside, the patio could very well have been Palermo Park with the lake and the swans they had described to her. She decided to go in.     The patio wasn't so big, but there were little tables with red tablecloths out in the sunshine, and the steak with French fries was almost as delicious as the dessert with cream and dulce de leche . She absolutely did not miss Tres Lomas. When she left, she discovered that her capital had been considerably diminished, but she wasn't too worried. She had enough to last till nighttime. Later, she'd see. Copyright © 1999 Latin American Literary Review Press. All rights reserved.