|Globle and Mail – Saturday, December 28, 2002|
Canlit fabulism – Jim Bartley review
The Scent of a Lie
By Paulo Da Costa
With this book of linked stories, Paulo Da Costa adds piquant new spice to the CanLit broth. Despite a recent Booker short list proving yet again that Canada’s writers are also the world’s, we’ve still lacked (I invite correction) a fiction hailing from Portuguese villages.
Paying homage to a fabulist tradition running from Marquez and Borges and Carlos Fuentes all the way back to Cervantes, Da Costa evokes his God-beset, earthbound peasants, priests and villagers with palpable, redolent precision. Meanwhile, his setting in time remains indeterminate, suggesting a range that stretches across centuries, yet points unerringly to present ills.
For decades, Padre Lucas has tended a rural parish. Landless peasants serve the nouveau riche Senhore Ambrosio, himself a hardened escapee from poverty. Lucas has seen enough feudal misery in this valley to have “personal thoughts” about God’s limitations. At Ambrosio’s funeral, as peasant mourners shuffle away from the gravesite, Lucas duly blesses the landlord’s soul, then his own; then he clears his throat and spits on the coffin.
In a nearby village, a young girl is rescued from a tumble into a well, and later tells the village priest she has gained the ability to scent deception:
“Some lies were masked under perfumes, others hid under cow manure.” Regardless, “every lie carried the subtlest yet unmistakable stench of rotting fish, which triggered a gull-like cry from deep inside Camila’s being.”
Her cries, emerging as fits of sneezing, soon plague the village. “The trumpeting of Camila’s nose echoed against the cliffs, down the cobblestone streets and entered a home without knocking.” The solution to exposed deception? Camila is winched back down into the well, while Padre Baptista and the assembled villagers pray fervently that the messenger be cured.
Another succinct, sardonic tale offers a secular reconstruction of the celebrated visions at Fatima. Here and elsewhere, Da Costa is our guiding apostate, his parables cooly treading the contested ground between the heretic individual and the orthodox crowd.
Perhaps the best tale presents the prophetic Florindo, who has spent most of his adult life on a riverbank, under a stately ginkgo tree whose gnarled roots saved him from drowning as a child. To the children who stop to hear his stories, he holds up a schoolbook and calls it “thin knowledge” against the ageless wisdom of the trees that made its pages. “Sit under a tree long enough and you also will know things.”
Setting the blessings and perils of nature against the villagers’ obsession with heaven over earth, this tale blends magical imagery with a moving and timely reminder of earth’s fragility in the face of our consumerist onslaught.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer.