A Language That Will Work For Them Both: Nowhere People by Paulo Scott

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Now she just needs to use a few words to make him understand that she wishes to get back into the raincloud-coloured car and accompany him wherever he would like to take her, even if it takes hours, the whole day, until she has invented a language that will work for them both, a language from the place of God and the spirits that like to pass themselves off as non-Indians, until she manages to close her eyes tight and disappear.

The passage is from a novel by Brazilian author Paulo Scott, recently published in the UK. It’s called Nowhere People, though translator Daniel Hahn comments that "Unreal Inhabitant" would be a closer translation of the Portuguese title. The English title he eventually chose attempts to capture the implications of the original: ‘a book about dispossession, about people struggling to put down new roots after their old ones have been yanked up, so the title suits’. He also notes that it's ‘not a bad way of describing the lot of the invisible translator, either’.

Perhaps that’s unsurprising: the book is concerned with acts of translation in a very literal sense. The first half of the book deals with the ill-fated relationship between university-educated Paulo and Maína, an indigenous girl. Maína’s first language is Guaraní: “Christ,” Paulo finds himself thinking at one point, “she doesn’t even speak Portuguese properly”. Throughout their interactions she wrestles for communication with him. He talks to her in sentences she can only partially understand; he translates her stories into ‘words he would use if he were writing for his university friends’. Needless to say, he speaks no Guaraní, nor does he ever attempt to. It’s an imbalance that doesn’t occur to him. It’s a blind spot because it is based in something as fundamental as language, a silence which speaks volumes about the inequalities in Brazilian society.

Paulo Scott, in an article for English PEN, expresses his frustration that modern Brazilian literature ‘has so far failed to produce an even moderately impressive number of novels that manage to get away from the reality of white guys, living in the big urban centres, belonging to a middle class that is modernised and advantaged . . . These contemporary novels describe the reality of a social class with access to education and culture in general, which the overwhelming majority of Brazilians do not possess.’

So Nowhere People is also concerned with a second kind of translation: a translation which seeks to bridge the gap between different planes of experience. Characters keep trying - and failing - to communicate from opposite ends of the social scale, between frames of reference where there is little if any overlap. To borrow from a recent review, this is what gives the book its sense of 'unassuageable tragedy and unassimilable strangeness'.

Paulo Scott will be at the Bookshop on 26 September. Book tickets here.