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Maria Esther Maciel: The Voice of Silence

A couple at a restaurant is different from all the other diners.

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Image taken by Flickr user Pradeep.

By Maria Esther Maciel
Translated by Daniel Hahn
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash series

Clichés are inevitable, sometimes. For anybody arriving in Rio de Janeiro, for example, coming into Santos Dumont Airport on a sunny day, it’s hard to resist resorting to that old expression “The Marvelous City” when faced with the landscape that comes in first through the airplane window and then, after arrival, unfolds before your eyes. The adjective “marvelous” really can’t be replaced by any other when describing the Carioca capital. Yes, Rio remains beautiful. On cloudless mornings, especially.

It was on just such a limpid-skied morning—and it wasn’t 40 degrees—that I cycled the whole coastline along the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon, with a gentle breeze on my face. Then my husband and I went for lunch at a restaurant that was slightly hidden away on the Avenida Visconde de Pirajá, in a sort of landscaped patio in one of the buildings. It was there that the events I’m about to describe took place.

As soon as I saw them, I knew there was something unusual about them—I just didn’t know what it was.

The waiter had already brought the cream of pumpkin soup with ginger that we’d ordered as a starter, when a couple sat down at the table to our left. They were both dark skinned and looked under thirty. She wore glasses, a print skirt, and a white blouse. He had a sparse beard and wore jeans and a green T-shirt. They were all smiles when they arrived, holding hands, exchanging glances. As soon as I saw them, I knew there was something unusual about them—I just didn’t know what it was.

The restaurant was packed. There was a constant murmur of voices and laughter around us, on top of the cool sound of ambient music. A Charlie Chaplin movie was playing on the screen of a TV fixed to the back wall. It was “The Kid.” Beside it, written onto the wall itself, there was a quote from the filmmaker himself: “Life is a play that does not allow testing. So, sing, cry, dance, laugh and live intensely, before the curtain closes and the piece ends with no applause.”

I could see that they were oblivious to everything happening around them, lost to a lively unspoken conversation that was being conducted by means of signs and facial expressions.

Amid all the hubbub, one detail about our neighboring table caught my attention: the silence. There were no voices to be heard, no words or fragments of sentences coming from the couple sitting there. Until I realized, with a quick glimpse, that they were communicating in sign language. And I began, discreetly, to watch them. I could see that they were oblivious to everything happening around them, lost to a lively unspoken conversation that was being conducted by means of signs and facial expressions. From the looks they were exchanging, they seemed to be sharing intimacies that could not be revealed to any other person, safe in the knowledge that nobody (or almost nobody) would be capable of deciphering their language.

The waiter brought them a colorful salad, two crepes, and a jug of red juice. Over the whole lunch they never stopped talking in silence, availing themselves of a private, corporeal vocabulary. I’ve never wanted to understand the language of the deaf more than I did that afternoon. I even watched as the dessert they ordered arrived in a tall glass, with two spoons. Each of them then began to bring portions of the delicacy to the other’s mouth, with mannerisms that were almost childish. And suddenly, accidentally, the boy knocked over one of the drinks glasses (which still had a bit of the juice in it) onto the table, staining the tablecloth and the girl’s blouse. She assumed an expression of fake annoyance and gave her boyfriend’s ear a tug, with a naughty little smile. Then she looked at me, hoping for some complicity. I smiled back at her, and she seemed to like it.

I’ve never wanted to understand the language of the deaf more than I did that afternoon.

Meanwhile, on the TV screen, the silent Chaplin film was drawing to an end.

Maria Esther Maciel is a poet, novelist, essayist, and professor of literary theory and comparative literature at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Brazil. Her publications include Triz (1999), O Livro de Zenóbia (2004), A Memória das Coisas (2004), O Livro dos Nomes (2008), A Vida ao Redor (2014), and Literatura e Animalidade (2016). She is working on a new novel about the life of St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor, and translator with about 50 books to his name. His translations (from Spanish, Portuguese, and French) include fiction from Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and nonfiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. He is a past chair of the UK Translators Association and the Society of Authors, and former National Programme Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation.

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