Dispatch from Brazil #1: Hilda Hilst Wrote Porn for Children

by on Jan.06, 2012

I just got back from a 10-day vacation in Brazil, where I got to take in a few cultural delights in between family visits.  In the spirit of Johannes and Joyelle’s reports from abroad, I’ll be sharing my discoveries with you, Montevidayans, virtual denizens of the Southern Cone.

First up:  The brilliant Hilda Hilst’s The Pink Notebook of Lori Lamby, a work once classified by its author as a “banana” instead of a “book.”  Hilst, according to this interview, thought of the novel as “porn for children.”  Lori Lamby, the 8-year-old narrator whose surname plays off the Portuguese word for lick (lamber), is the decidedly monstrous lovechild of Lolita and Humbert Humbert who writes in diary format about her sexual conquests/exploitation.  The artwork, provided by Millór Fernandez in the style of storybooks, alone suggests Lori’s insatiable appetite and unsentimental education:

Here’s a rough translation I’ve penned to give an idea of how Lori Lamby slides in and out of art, language, pedophilia, and prostitution in a comically (!) libertine fashion:

I’m eight years old.  I’m going to tell everything the way I know it because Mommy and Daddy told me to tell it the way I know it.  Now I have to talk about the young man who came here and Mommy told me now that he’s not so young, and so I lay in my little bed so pretty, all rose-colored.  And Mommy could only buy this bed after I started doing what I’m going to talk about.  I lay down with my doll and the man who is not so young asked me to take off my underwear.  I took it off.  Then he asked me to open my legs and I lay down and I did it.  Then he started to touch my thigh that is really soft and fat, and asked me to open my little legs.  I really like it when people put their hands on my thigh.  Then the man asked me to be quiet as a mouse, he was going to kiss me on my little thing.  He started to lick me the way a cat licks, really slow, and squeezed my bumbum nice.  I stayed really quiet because it’s delicious and I wanted him to keep licking the whole time, but he took out his big thing, the piupiu, and the piupiu was very big, the size of a corn ear.  Mommy said it couldn’t be that big, but she didn’t see it, and who knows if daddy’s piupiu is smaller, the size of a smaller ear, maybe a ear of green corn.

Lori’s father is a writer who, like Hilst in her lifetime, feels marginalized by his lack of commercial success in the face of so much humdrum popular fiction.  Lori herself reflects on this:

I don’t know why stories for kids don’t show the prince licking the girl and putting his finger inside our beautiful little butthole.  I mean, the girl’s.  Daddy could write these beautiful stories for kids with all this, so I went to talk to him but it didn’t work out because he and mommy had fought.  So it went like this:

“Daddy, since you want to make money off the filthy rat Lalau…”

“Don’t talk that way, child.”

“But you’re the one who talks like that, Daddy.”

As Lori’s notebook progresses, her naughty vocabulary expands in defiance of her father’s claim that “a book is not born like a child, it’s all a construction, pyramids etc., and the result of sweat and pain etc.”  She confuses “refined lingua” with the physical referent of the same word (tongue), wondering if a skillful lick is the same thing as a skillfully written sentence.

By conflating words and bodies as the easy commodities they both become, and letting this conflation linger in our open mouths, Hilst takes the sort of debasement traditionally engaged by male writers (Lawrence and Bataille are mentioned) to its (il)logical and self-consuming conclusion.  Rather than trot out a feminist critique that confers on the writer and reader a path to moral high ground, Hilst’s prepubescent erotica shatters all roles.  Even the narrative, exhausted by its shock appeal, tries to undo itself and escape its protagonist’s sex/money-hungry depravity.  Lori Lamby ends with fairy tales written by Lori in what amounts to a potatoesque collapse of genre and gender norms, not to mention the ethical distinctions that the latter invite.  I ended up feeling naked by the end of this uncompromisingly compromised book, having been thoroughly cast as its consumer–or both its predator and prey.

Tracey Emin's own libertine trash heap

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Woah! This is wild stuff. I especially like the fact that this is a parody of the ‘write what you know’ instruction. Mommy and Daddy tell her to “tell it the way [she] knows it”, and meanwhile, they also script this pornographic experiences for her to “tell”, and then she unwrites the script with her inappropriate comparisons.

    Hey, have you read Aira’s “How I became a nun?’? There’s a connex here I think!

  2. Lara Glenum

    Joyelle, the parody of “write what you know” I get, but I’m not so much seeing how the narrator “unwrites the script with her inappropriate comparisons,” which is exactly the kind of thing I’d totally love to read! Which comparisons are you thinking of?

    Lucas, I’m interested in your idea that Hilst is taking Bataillian debasement to its logical conclusion. The story seems to invoke some of the standard tropes of hetero porn in which a female naif is debased (and enjoys it) while we look on, getting creamy in the crotch (or not). I’m somehow missing how this fucks with (rather than fulfills) gender norms. Maybe, as you say, it lies in the fact that the book “ends with fairy tales written by Lori in what amounts to a potatoesque collapse of genre and gender norms,” which (again) I would totally love to read.

    The frame (“porn for kids”) seems a radical gesture, but not so much the above content, which seems kind of standard pedophilic fare. Hans Bellmer would be bursting in his unfashionable German jeans.

    If the girl’s pleasure is supposed to be her weapon, well, I don’t know. Aren’t infantilized women (and Catholic school girls) supposed to chatter away in bright, chirpy, childish tones (“bumbum,” “piupiu,” “my little thing,” etc.). Aren’t they supposed to enjoy their gooey, kittenish debasement? The British tabloids are hilariously (or disturbingly) full of this!

    I do *really* like that the girl badgers her father, which seems excellent. Maybe there is more of this kind of aggressing on adults. I hope so. I hope there is lots and lots of aggressing on adults (and I don’t mean sexually, I mean in a harassing, violent way). I hope she brings all the adults down.

    An unfortunate number of my friends were sexually abused as kids (often “scripted” by their parents), and one committed suicide, two are addicts, and the rest are hanging on, many of them just barely. They more or less all live in a state of terror. So this is tricky territory. It’s clearly supposed to be.

    I guess I’m most interested in the provocation of Hildt’s framing: “porn for kids,” especially since the story clearly seems to be written for adults. I don’t think she’s asking us to reimagining child sexuality. This story is adult-on-child, not child-on-child (see Bataille). Adults involving children in their sexual play is always for the benefit of the adults. My own kids would be perplexed/uninterested in the sexual details of the story (and we’re a family that talks frankly about genitals, sexual pleasure, etc.).

    I’d love to hear you talk more about how you think this frame functions, Lucas. And I do hope you translate more. If you say it’s a wrecking ball, I tend to believe you.

  3. adam strauss

    I agree with Joyelle–Woah! And is it just me or, amazingly, is this excerpt weirdly less “creepy” than it cld be; I love the way it doesn’t seem to silently screem AND THIS IS WRONG.

    Joyelle–I quite like your Minnis review in Jacket 2! I love the punctuation analysis!

  4. adam strauss

    Ok, Lara’s great post makes me see that I was had–the excerpt is in an appropratory relation to the kid trope/this is for adults. I do tho find its lack of implicit condemnation interesting but, alas, I am not versed in Catholic girl representations so my reaction wasn’/isn’t informed. I think I’m thinking wow this almost seems Color Purple-ish, but without the implicit gloom.

    Oh hell now I don’t know what to think–and maybe this is the best place to be?

  5. adam strauss

    @ Lara: Child-on-child–yepyep, that’d be apter for a childporn frame, I agree. Does hetero kitty sex tend to mimic the worst of hetero adult dynamics–has anyone studied this?

    As a result of my hetero pre-pube play dates (tres lol monogamous) (driveway, out-of use truck, fogged-windows and “sex sweat”) I imagined I was going to turn into a girl–a conclusion I don’t begin to understand but maybe chalking up to childmind is aptest.

    Is it just me or is the @ sign for addressing a person a little creepily aggressive/shove the football at someone?

  6. Lara Glenum

    Also, I love this, Lucas: “She confuses “refined lingua” with the physical referent of the same word (tongue), wondering if a skillful lick is the same thing as a skillfully written sentence.”

    I’m interested in the way this text intersects with Babyfucker, another cannibalizing/collapsing text that tropes on pedophilia.

    I hope you translate more.

  7. Lucas de Lima

    Joyelle, you’re right, the connex is there! I read Aira’s book a few years ago and loved it; I need to return to him.

    Lara, the kind of parody that Joyelle pointed to is one way the book sets itself apart from the male libertine tradition. As comedic erotica, it’s clearly a bad fit–not least of all because it’s the little girl who gets to tell the story (though it might also be possible that her father has constructed the whole book–that’s another source of anxiety that the book entertains). What I find so impressive is how Hilst’s parody doesn’t distance us from the writing; it is hilarious at times while still wild, gross, disturbing. I would actually love to translate whole thing–though I think maybe only Action would publish it! In the meantime, I’m going to post the interview with Hilst where she speaks for herself, and I’ll be curious to see what you think of it.

    Lori probably even cannibalizes Babyfucker, whose twitchy, anxious speaker would perfectly complement her voracity.