Fresh from the experience of an invisibility hitherto unknown

Nowhere People
by Paulo Scott
translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

I’ve subscribed to And Other Stories for a few years now, and I tend to know little or nothing about the books they send me before I read them. I mean, I could read the blurbs, or the e-mail newsletter I get every month, but I’m going to read them anyway so why risk spoilers?

And I’m glad in this case I had so little idea of where it was going. Which leaves me with some difficulty when it comes to writing a review. Not that the plot is hugely twisty turny, but it does cover a large span of time, and much of what happens later is the result of something I don’t want to give away.

The book opens with Paulo, a Brazilian law student and activist, driving along a highway in torrential rain and spotting a poor indigenous girl at the side of the road. Stopping to give 14-year-old Maína a lift sets in motion events that reverberate through two decades of relationships, politics and activism.

“The film ends. The two of them wait till the light from the projector and the music are switched off. They look at one another. He takes in the girl, all kitted out like a punk-goth with her seed necklace over the fabric of the AC/DC t-shirt and the smell of Phebo Rose soap, sat in the dirty red leather seat of the Baltimore with her canvas bag full of damp pages from newspapers and magazines, fresh from the experience of an invisibility hitherto unknown to her, allowing herself to look and looking. Perhaps there’s some kind of answer there. Paolo knows there is, but he can’t do it, it’s hard to make out.”

Paulo is like many idealistic young socialists – rich, oblivious to the reality of poverty and the true effect of his actions, but genuinely well intentioned. Maína is a Guarani Indian and lives with her family in a tent at the side of the road. She collects discarded newspapers and magazines from which to learn Portuguese. She is quiet but not shy, and she and Paulo learn to communicate in words, though not in understanding.

The prose is dense – most paragraphs go on for two or three pages – but it’s so well written that I found it thoroughly absorbing, full of amazing life-filled characters who I really felt I had come to know. However, it does suffer from that family saga trait of skipping forwards in time, jumping to a new setting or character every 50 or so pages, which would leave me feeling a little lost. It wasn’t always clear exactly how much time had passed, at least at first, but cultural and political references give clues.

“Curiosity, just curiosity, curiosity is what’s new now nothing matters man and everyone can go to hell cause now I don’t give a fuck and I want to see if this shit catches fire once and for all. Amid excuse mes and sorrys he makes his way over toward the speaker…He watches him, comparing. It’s as if it were decades ago, as if he had himself never spoken in public, never needed to be charismatic…He feels odd, not only the dizziness of the wine, it’s the dreams and the hope that he can’t bear. Such haste, his own haste. So much that it made him stagnate. He hasn’t been interested in trying to think.”

So in the end this was a slow read, but worth taking the time for. I learned a little about Brazil, but probably more about the universality of youthful hope and despair evening out over time. I was interested to read the author’s note, which confirms that the main character is called Paulo because the idea for the novel was sparked by a moment in his own life that set him wondering “what if” and ultimately researching the Guarani people. I always like to know what the spark was that led to a novel.

Habitante Irreal published 2011 by Editora Objetiva.
This translation published 2014 by And Other Stories.

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