Sérgio Rodrigues’s “Elza: The Girl” and Paulo Scott’s “Nowhere People”

Reviewed by Anderson Tepper

Image of Sérgio Rodrigues’s “Elza: The Girl” and Paulo Scott’s “Nowhere People”
Image of Sérgio Rodrigues’s “Elza: The Girl” and Paulo Scott’s “Nowhere People”

Where are all the young Brazilian writers? Latin American literature appears to be bursting at the seams once again—as it did during the famed Boom era of the 1960s and ’70s—with a new generation of talented writers such as Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Chilean Alejandro Zambra, Mexican Valeria Luiselli, and Argentine Andrés Neuman, to name just a few. But from Brazil, that giant swath of South America, works in English translation are few and far between. Is it the Portuguese that is so daunting? Or is it the complexities of the country itself that render the literature so alien to American readers?

Of course, Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue, from the fall of 2012, helped open a path, introducing promising writers like Michael Laub and Daniel Galera, among others. (Laub’s novel, Diary of the Fall, was published here this past summer by Other Press, while Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard will be released this winter by Penguin Press.) Meanwhile, two authors who must have just missed the cut-off age for the Granta issue, Sérgio Rodrigues and Paulo Scott, have novels out now that offer fascinating glimpses into their country’s past and its preoccupations with questions of history and identity, radical politics, and the long shadow of military dictatorship.

            ***

Sérgio Rodrigues’s Elza: The Girl, translated by Zoë Perry and originally published in Brazil in 2008, is a beguiling hybrid: part true-crime noir, part historical mystery. At the center is the real-life figure of Elza Fernandes, who, as the sixteen-year-old lover of a leading Communist official, was accused of treason and executed by Communist apparatchiks after a failed 1935 uprising. Her story is the sort of historical excavation that lends itself to endless reinterpretation and conspiracy theories—like in Javier Cercas’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, The Soldiers of Salamis, we’re offered a variety of accounts of an episode shrouded in legend and contentious legacies. Was Elza, finally, a scapegoat or traitor? Was she simply an illiterate country girl, or somehow complicit in the government’s ruthless crushing of the rebellion? “Elza became a symbol, sign, icon, scribble, scratch, trace, and finally a gap, a blank space,” we’re told. “Depending on the point of view . . .  Elza was a nasty piece of work, or she was the innocent victim of a cowardly massacre.”

If the historical aspect of the novel—a revisiting of a crucial moment in Brazilian revolutionary politics, with an elusive, Evita-like figure at its heart—has its own dark drama, the present narrative is even more gritty and twisted and noirish. Molina, a down-at-the-heels journalist, has been hired to help Xerxes, a former Communist in his nineties, write his memoirs of his radical past and youthful infatuation with Elza. Molina, a somewhat predictable character type who drinks too much and watches too many late-night episodes of The Twilight Zone, spends much of the book unsure exactly who Xerxes is and what the nature of his relationship with Elza truly is. As the novel alternates between present-day rants and soliloquies by both Xerxes and Molina, and resurrected documents and hearsay, the reader is often left slightly confused, struggling to make sense of long-ago party machinations before arriving at a final plot twist of switched identities worthy of The Twilight Zone itself.

Rodrigues’s writing, especially in the sections on Elza, is often repetitive and cumbersome, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it were the author’s fault or the translator’s (or the result of poor editing by the publisher, AmazonCrossing). And yet there is still a palpable sense of the promise and spirit of the revolutionary enterprise of the 1930s, even if its failure doomed the movement for decades to come: “It . . . cleared the way for the Estado Novo dictatorship, landed thousands of people in jail, filled the torture chambers, destroyed the party, and gave the right a supply of legends and bogeymen large enough to last until the end of the century.”

            ***

In Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People (published in Brazil in 2011), Paulo, a twentysomething law student and disillusioned activist in the southern city of Porto Alegre, has grown weary of the rhetoric of his fellow Trotskyites, even as the country as a whole lurches out from beneath the military dictatorship in the late 1980s. Here, finally, is democracy. But what does it look like? And where does he fit in, he wonders, as he watches former colleagues jostle for position and power. But whereas Rodrigues is interested in the decimation of an entire political generation, Scott soon pivots to view contemporary Brazil through a lens largely ignored by both the Left and Right.

It is a chance encounter, in fact, with a teenage Guarani Indian that shakes Paulo out of his torpor, rekindling a sense of passion and mission. Maína, who lives in a makeshift shelter by the side of the highway, represents a vision of a Brazil that Paulo hardly knows, and a state of injustice worthy of his commitment. Only things aren’t so clear-cut; and, after bringing her home with him, a series of violent confrontations—with Paulo’s friends, with the police, with her own conscience—will doom Maína and, years later, shape the life of their son, Donato.

Scott writes with a fitful, kinetic energy, even a certain fury, as his novel leapfrogs between Brazilian social classes—the indigenous dispossessed and the urban elite of Porto Alegre and São Paulo—with a chasm of mutual incomprehension between the two. The voices of Maína and, later, Donato, a street protester in search of his roots, are particularly rare and bold departures for Brazilian fiction. Elaborate sentences, mirroring the book’s social collisions, are often contorted with unexpected syntax and structure. Chapters vary between lengthy digressions and short, lyrical descriptions of Paulo and Maína’s (and a constellation of related characters’) inner struggles, with enigmatic, poetic titles like “whatever happens there’s always something left over to happen again” and “what’s to be done with the usual?” (The book’s translation, by Daniel Hahn, is in itself a wondrous feat.)

But I haven’t begun to give you a sense of the many directions Nowhere People will lead—it will, over the course of its three-hundred-odd pages, travel up and down the Brazilian coast and deeper into the Guarani psyche; veer off and take you on a tour of London squatter-anarchists; consider the precarious existence of Brazilians in exile, and the transformation and betrayals of the country’s modern class of governing Leftists (culminating in the era of President Lula da Silva). Like Sérgio Rodrigues’s novel—and Brazil itself—Nowhere People is something of a messy hodgepodge of conflicting storylines, worldviews, and simmering revolts. But perhaps it’s the freshness of Maína’s perspective, and that of a lost and invisible segment of society with nowhere to turn, that helps make Scott’s novel such a revolutionary new work of Brazilian literature.