CLARA

By Luisa Valenzuela

Translated by Andrea G. Labinger

Latin American Literary Review Press. 191 pp. $15.95

When 18-year-old Clara Hernandez takes the bus from her home town of Tres Lomas and lands in the Argentine capital, she lasts just a few hours before she--accidentally, inadvertently--turns her first trick. All it takes is two martinis and one nice young man. Then another man--not so young, not so nice--suggests that she make the particular hotel where she lost her virtue her home base, her permanent place of business. Without thinking very much about it, Clara does.

She lives in a little room, finds willing customers, buys a few blouses and pieces of jewelry. She thinks very little about her past (her mother went off somewhere on a long visit; her father took up with the butcher's wife and then threw Clara out), and she doesn't think about the future because if she were to think about it, there wouldn't be one. But this isn't like a novel by Emile Zola; it isn't about misery. Clara is, against all the odds, initially content.

She has a beautiful lavender dress with a flounce, and a push-up bra that's very flattering. She lives close to an amusement park and a "Dance Palace." Yes, the amusement park is a horrid charade and the "Palace" a cheap mock-up of broken dreams, but at another level the park promises gaiety and the Palace has genuine people dancing, no matter how squalid their circumstances. Soon Clara becomes smitten with a handsome waiter at the hotel. What they do (hurriedly, out in a park) is perfunctory enough, but Clara through the power of her imagination translates it into love.

Her life, then, is ghastly, but she's able to transform it without any great effort into something romantic and significant, something worth living, simply because she's a decent, good-hearted person.

Clara's overriding dream is to get to the sea, which isn't far away; her greatest limitation in that endeavor, as in all else, is that her semi-pimp at the hotel warns her never to get into a car with a man because men who own cars are the very worst. If Clara sticks with pedestrians, she'll lower her chances of being murdered, but she's stuck, by definition, with low-achieving schlubs. It's one of the traditional female dilemmas (and I beg male readers not to be offended at this): It's moderately easy to be subordinate to a powerful, reliable, intelligent and kind man. But if you find yourself stuck with lowlife lunks, it becomes much harder, a kind of gender limbo-dancing, to stay deferential. As dumb and incompetent as her men are, Clara must be dumber and more incompetent. It's hard on her, and with boyfriends like the ones she's got, she's never going to get a ride to the beach.

This is a hard story to read if you are a woman. The reader thinks: Isn't there anything else Clara can do? Isn't there any way for her to weasel out of her cruel fate? (And it doesn't matter that other people have, in a sense, written this story over and over. There are still Claras out there, still girls who have nothing to place between themselves and death but their own all-too-vulnerable bodies. Doesn't that sound melodramatic? But it's true.) Clara has absolutely no skills and no family and no money; she's at the mercy of any man she comes in contact with.

Her first protector at the hotel turns out to be flabby and fainthearted. When her handsome waiter, Carlos, turns up after an initial desertion, she's living with an extraordinary bore named Victor, a refrigerator salesman who orders her around and raves when lunch isn't ready and blabs all day and never listens to a word she says. Again, although the situation is among the oldest in the world, you watch it happening afresh: this young woman thinking, well, if listening to Victor drone on is the price of respectability, I'm heading back to Carlos and the streets!

But Clara doesn't think consciously all that much. She just leaves. And finds that Carlos, the song-singing glamour boy, performs the sexual act with about as much feeling as her most brutal customers. She leaves Carlos, too.

This is a story of a life going irrevocably downhill. Soon Clara, still just a girl, ends up with the very worst man of all, a middle-class intellectual gone bad, a failure who passes off his own failure to himself as a kind of existential wallowing in the depths of human behavior in order to "find himself." In reality--whatever that is--he's a lowdown pig.

The author obviously wants the reader to hold this mirror up to nature and take a hard look. Doesn't any woman who lives with a man she doesn't much care for find herself with a "Victor," a tiresome conqueror howling for his cold chicken and having what is--to him!--the most interesting conversation in the world, an uninterrupted monologue? Doesn't any woman who falls for a pretty face tend to find out sooner or later that, in physical terms, all men might turn out to be disconcertingly the same?

And without getting too serious or upset about it, don't all of us, men and women, tend to bungle our way from innocent, ignorant childhood into what we manage to call our adult lives on the strength of a couple of metaphorical martinis? No one among us wants to be a streetwalker or a refrigerator salesman, but some of us, sooner or later, may find ourselves in lives we passionately and sadly detest.

It still isn't common to write about a prostitute except from the outside. Remember Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"? Jake Barnes checked out that whore in the bistro and registered fastidious dismay at her bad teeth. Then he went on to see the bulls run at Pamplona and think lofty thoughts. The girl with the bad teeth, presumably, had to go back to her hotel room, or her pimp, or some moron who hated her.

We're beyond all that, we like to think. As long as we don't think too hard about it.

Upcoming in Book World

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

CHE IN AFRICA: Che Guevara's Congo Diary, edited by William Galvez. Reviewed by Saul Landau.

I REMAIN IN DARKNESS, by Annie Ernaux. A daughter's memoir of a mother's battle with Alzheimer's disease. Reviewed by Reeve Lindbergh.

IN CONCERT PERFORMANCE, by Nikolai Dezhnev. A surreal novel about a spirit who takes the earthly form of a Russian woman. Reviewed by Richard Lourie.

SLAB RAT, by Ted Heller. In this novel, the rodent in question works for a magazine that sounds like both Vanity Fair and People. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

SEEING THROUGH PLACES: Reflections on Geography and Identity, by Mary Gordon. Reviewed by Carolyn See.