Brazil’s Literary Hand Grenades

Paulo Scott
Nowhere People
translated by Daniel Hahn
(And Other Stories, 2014)

Michel Laub
Diary of the Fall
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
(Other Press, 2014)

Because of this year’s World Cup, cities that had once been footnotes in our consciousness have suddenly gained in solidity and weight. Porto Alegre, in particular, one of the World Cup host cities alongside Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, has skyrocketed into the international consciousness. Perhaps this was not so difficult to accomplish: Porto Alegre is Brazil’s 10th most populous city, and a valuable port for shipping and commerce. Among the local produce that it exports are rice and plums, shoes and leather—and now authors. In a single year—2011—two books by authors from Porto Alegre bookended the Brazilian publishing schedule, and the country’s critics wrote of Michel Laub’s Diário da queda and Paulo Scott’s Habitante Irreal with the same shock and awe that American critics wrote of Teju Cole’s Open City. Each of these books seemed to be literary hand-grenades thrown by their authors to blow apart different aspects of their own cities. And now, in a strange quirk of translation and publishing schedules, Daniel Hahn’s translation of Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall are coming out in the United States within a week of each other. It is as if an extraordinarily slow-moving cargo ship from Porto Alegre had finally and suddenly docked in one of America’s harbors, and we Anglophone readers were finally able to open up the crate from 2011. And what would these readers find inside?

A book that was originally supposed to be a revolutionary manifesto, in the case of Nowhere People. Paulo Scott has repeatedly explained in Portuguese interviews the sheer number of drafts and years it took him before he arrived at the final version of his book, which is a series of meditations on revolution, on homes, and on love in the form of an energetic and wide-flung story tracking two people and the lives they collide with.

Nowhere People opens with a footnote. Quite literally so: there is no superscript number, no text above. The first page features just a half-line, and then, in a font that turns out to be smaller than the rest of the book, a sidelong look at one of the book’s protagonists. This is how we are introduced to Paulo, a law student who teeters on the edge of being a political militant and ends up veering in another direction completely. The chapter title is “nineteen eighty-nine,” the year of the first presidential election since the military coup in 1964. Everything is going to change, and we haven’t even turned the page.

There are a few other chapters in Paulo Scott’s novel that are footnotes entirely unto themselves. At first, they seem no different from the rest of the novel, which concerns itself with this law student—yes, he shares his name and biographical details with his author—and an indigenous teenage girl that he picks up on the side of the road, and the various people and futures resultant from this collision of two fates. But the novel’s unusual layout hints that the revolutions in this novel aren’t just political. With these footnotes, one suspects, Paulo Scott is trying to insert the appearance of fact into this unflinching look at the various undersides of contemporary Brazil.

Indeed, despite being fictional, and perhaps because of its origins in the author’s political sentiments, Nowhere People has an air of documentary reality. Its numerous narrative threads take us into dissident meetings (where Paulo prepares to withdraw because of his idealism), into the encampment where Maína lives along with the other indigenous people after her encounter with Paulo, into the anarchist underside of London where Paulo moves, into the life of Donato, the son that Maína bears and has adopted by a rich man, and so on. The result is a dizzying kaleidoscope of lives and places and stories, each arm messily spinning outward.

The novel’s heterogeneity is apparent even from the outside. Its four sections are named, respectively and entirely in lowercase, “whatever happens there’s always something left over to happen again”; “nobody reads the unexpected”; “spring”; and “what’s to be done with the usual?” By making these titles lowercased questions and phrases, rather than typical, capitalized descriptions, Paulo Scott leaves his readers without many signposts to orient themselves. This seems to be an intentional echo of the upheaval and rapid change that both Brazil’s government and its inhabitants experienced in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At one point Scott notes that “Paulo can’t forget the news, this particular piece of news, and still asks himself how it’s possible that some people should be so fixed in a single place.” For readers, making a home within the novel is a struggle, exactly as Paulo Scott intends—and yet there is enough to give readers hope.

For, above all, Nowhere People is a novel about home-making, about making proper homes out of mere places. Paulo wants to build a shack out of plywood for Maína and her relatives. Maína wants to settle in with Paulo (and becomes pregnant by him as a way to do so). Paulo moves to London to reclaim abandoned and locked-up houses for the homeless. Donato, their son, brings the novel full circle as he reunites with his biological father and puts on a mask as an activist for Brazil’s indigenous peoples, claiming a stake in the country in which neither of his parents had ever felt quite at home.

Nowhere People is an intentionally imperfect novel. Characters float in and out without much fanfare. Some of Paulo Scott’s narrative tricks fall flat. His dense, sometimes overly complex sentences—“A few kilometers further down the road and refusing to admit that, for a moment, his nerve had failed him and that the sight of the girl had struck him like almost nothing else in his life, Paulo imagines that some lorry (even though not a single vehicle has passed him going in the opposite direction) must have stopped already and offered her a lift”—overload his readers with a build-up of information that often turns out to be extraneous. (It is a credit to Daniel Hahn’s energetic translation that these sentences carry the same force and flow that they do in the original Portuguese—hairpin turns and all.) If the novel is to be a home that its readers build for themselves, Paulo Scott does not make it an easy task.

Still, such an idea perfectly suits Brazil. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop fell in love with the Brazilian aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares, who with a house just north of Rio gave her the closest thing she ever had to a true home—but neither of them quite accepted it. Even Chico Buarque—perhaps the best candidate Brazil has for a national icon off the soccer field—has emigrated to Paris, where he has reportedly been working on his own novel.

Homes, indeed, can be poisoned, whether by the actions of the present or the weight of the past. Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall also takes as its focus a small niche within Brazilian society. For Laub, however, the stakes are less domestic than historical in scope; although it is rooted in Brazil (both Porto Alegre and São Paulo), its contents would likely resonate no matter which country it took place in.

In contrast to Nowhere People, Michel Laub’s crisply taut novella circles obsessively around the singular fall of the title, as well as several other concerns: of family, of the Holocaust, of personal responsibility and historical consequences. The chapter titles mirror this narrative narrowness: a set reads as “A Few Things I Know about My Grandfather,” “A Few Things I Know about My Father,” and “A Few Things I Know about Myself”; there are three chapters titled “Notes,” and only at the end do we get “The Fall” and “The Diary.” Within those headings, Michel Laub lists, in incantatory and numbered paragraphs, all the facts that his narrator must remember and organize and make sense out of.

The eponymous fall occurs during a birthday party. The 13-year-old boy is thrown up into the air by the narrator and several of his schoolmates who are giving him a traditional “13 bumps” in the air, culminating in an intentional drop that causes the boy, João, serious (although temporary) injuries. The guilt of having harmed João follows the narrator in the following decades as he also gets into fights with his father, who succumbs to Alzheimer’s, and tries to make sense of his grandfather’s diaries, most of which obsessively detail his life after Auschwitz. The deeper we get into this unnamed narrator’s story, the more we discover of his life, of his father’s, and of his grandfather’s. The narrator marries three women and suffers from unremitting alcoholism. The father’s relationship to his son grows worse and worse. And it is a long while before we understand how the grandfather came to terms with the horrors of what he has experienced firsthand in the Holocaust.

Brazil has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, and Diary of the Fall turns its discomfiting focus upon the often-cloistered community. When João falls and cracks one of his vertebrae, we learn that he is the only Catholic student at the otherwise entirely Jewish school that they have been going to. “What can change in a matter of months?” the narrator wonders nearly halfway through the book. In this book, the narrator can become a complete social outcast. And João can change schools and become popular. Which is another way of saying: superficial circumstances can change. Emotions, however, have a harder time going away.

Diary of the Fall excavates the past in a way that Nowhere People is reluctant to do; whereas the latter looks optimistically to its future, the former trains its gaze unremittingly on what has already happened, attempting to make sense out of events that have already irrevocably changed people. As such, Diary of the Fall grows heavy with the baggage of explanation and summation in its final few pages—but this ending barely diminishes the accretive strength of its preceding pages, which enumerate and recite so many disparate stories that hurtle together into a climax of revelation and painful redemption. “It is impossible to read my father’s memoir without seeing in it a reflection of my grandfather’s notebooks,” the final section begins, and we read this with the understanding that these words are embedded in the narrator’s own memoir; he is absorbing these texts and memories into his own for a future that we cannot see yet.

Both of these books have the aura of stories that have not been told before. Or rather, each one takes familiar premises—a relationship that crosses social classes, a struggle to come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust—and goes in wholly unexpected directions. By the end of each book, we have come to know these characters intimately—Diary of the Fall’s unnamed narrator, Nowhere People’s Paulo—as well as the not-so-small corner of Brazil that gave birth to both of them. Brazil’s indigenous settlements have barely warranted mention in fiction, so to make an indigenous girl one of the protagonists in Nowhere People is an intentional punch to the genteel face of Brazilian norms. Diary of the Fall is every bit as much a rebuke to contemporary Brazil, as if it had attempted to move beyond its bloody past by forgetting it. In the twenty-first century, with an overwhelming number of ways to record and archive every passing moment, forgetting has ceased to be an option, has ceased, even, to be a possibility. Both these books are indeed literary hand grenades, and once they have exploded, once we close the book’s pages, we can only look in awe at the rubble of memory unearthed by these authors, each one a singular voice of Brazil today.


Jeffrey Zuckerman

Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, Best European Fiction, the White Review, the Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In his free time, he does not listen to music.