Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, translated by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories - September 2014)
Famously, confrontation goes hand in hand with drama, even when two completely different universes are colliding in an amorous fashion. Indeed, when the world of Paulo, a wealthy law student full of privilege and opportunity meets the world of fourteen-year-old Maina from the dispossessed tribe of the Guarani Indians, the writing is already on the wall. It is clear that despite the genuine affection and sense of wonder the two lovers have for one another, their relationship is going to be a rocky ride. Their backgrounds are so dissimilar that at first they don’t even have a shared language. If indeed this is a drama then it is not a comedy but an epic tragedy to rival a Greek play. It makes Romeo and Juliet look like a trivial affair. But the story goes beyond the personal, and stands for the desperate search of a divided country, with infinite hope and a brand new constitution, to find common ground and a sense of identity.
It is only with the help of Paulo that Maina slowly learns to express herself. He showers her with presents yet, as soon as she speaks Portuguese fluently and can ask for what she wants, the cracks start to show in their relationship. Of course, everyone warns them of the inappropriateness of their love. Not only is Maina extremely young but she is also poor. However, they don’t listen. Their emotional involvement continues until Maina becomes pregnant but doesn’t last until the child is born. When a couple of academic researchers visit Maina’s makeshift settlement by the roadside to make a study of the Indian tribe, they adopt the boy and take him away to be raised alongside the most privileged of society. As the little boy, named Donato, grows up without his biological parents, he struggles to make sense of his life. Meantime, Paulo has moved to London where he is no longer part of the establishment but learns first hand what it means to be the underdog. He even has visions of a white cocker spaniel. Years later he returns to Brazil and the story comes full circle.
The novel starts in 1989, and throughout the story Paulo’s perspective is dominant, even when he is not directly involved in the narrative. It is the perspective of a well to do but out of touch do-gooder who often acts out of political ideology, academic zeal or deeply felt compassion without actually consulting with the natives or truly considering them equals. This is not to say that there are not many genuine and selfless attempts to consolidate the two sides of the coin that make up the new Brazil—awakening from an authoritarian military dictatorship, but it remains an unsatisfactory compromise.
An important element in this narrative is the theatrical; Paolo moves clothes for a theatre company, Donato makes the acquaintance of a keen performer, other characters dress up in ritualistic masks made of balsa wood and write prize-winning school plays. There is the suggestion that it is through creative outlet that a meaningful exchange of cultures can be achieved. Traditionally rituals as well as performance are tools to articulate issues in order to stimulate both inspirational thought as well as change in participants and spectators. It is noteworthy that in ancient Greece the dramatic art was seen as a keystone of democracy itself. This could explain why Scott uses creative activities to provide an opportunity for the characters to grow within a new democratic environment.
The feel of the story is that of ongoing transience. It is a journey towards a fairer country, a better understanding or simply towards self-knowledge; at least that seems to be the underlying motivation. The narrative is in a very literal sense driven forward through various car journeys and transfers. Indeed, that is how Paulo meets Maina in the first place, when he picks her up at the side of the road and gives her a lift home in his VW Beetle. There is generally a tremendous sense of motion as much of the story happens in cars, temporary accommodations, fast-food restaurants, bars and hotels. Soundbites of 80s and 90s pop hits are like wallpaper, anchoring the story in time.
There is a great sense of fluidity in form as well as content. I can’t remember ever having read a novel with so many brackets. Particularly in the beginning the sentences are rather complex and often meander, supported by relevant commas, to convey the feel of a stream of consciousness text. The shift in point of view is often quite subtle and unexpected. The handling of this is both original as well as reminiscent of the modernist masters. It seems Scott is keen to communicate the overwhelming emotions and unsettledness that preoccupy his characters.
Given that much of the story takes place in Elephant and Castle, London, as well as in Brazilian cities, there is no doubt where the priorities lie. Despite the title, this book is not an attempt to explain the life and traditions of the Guarani Indians but focuses on the challenge to find an appropriate and just rapport within a modern setting which is ultimately facilitated by the ruling class. There is a strong sense of authenticity as the intrinsic connection between the author and his protagonists shines through. Despite cool, polite detachment the story is not without blood and guts. In fact, political argument and passion are well balanced. Overall, this novel is highly engaging, heartfelt and beautifully written.