‘The Fifth Story’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Giovanni Pontiero

If you’ve read The Passion According to GH, you’ll know Clarice has a thing about vermin – as do I. This very short story is about a woman dealing with an infestation of cockroaches. It begins by outlining all the possible alternate titles the story could have had, and how she will

…tell at least three stories, all of them true, because none of the three will contradict the others. Although they constitute one story, they could become a thousand and one, were I to be granted a thousand and one nights. 

In the first story, she learns a horrible kitchen potion for killing them and in the second she puts it to use. By the time we reach the third story, she must face the aftermath of what she has done, squaring up to an existential horror that is at once domestic and universal. I won’t spoil what comes next, except to say that these moments are replayed and echoed, and what seems to be a resolution is absolutely not, exploding your preconception of narrative, passage of time, intent, self, the natural world, violence, obsession and a fair few other things too.

First published as ‘A quinta história’ in A legião estrangeira, 1964 and in translation in The Foreign Legion, New Directions. Also in the Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015, and in Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, Persea. You can read it in full here

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