From Cowtown to Portugal, with love
Spare, poetic tales of ordinary people
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, in a windblown modern city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a young Angola-born man sat down to tell wonderful, enchanting stories set in lands far, far away. These are stories about people and lives far removed from our contemporary bustle, but the emotional and imaginative truths they portray resonate long after the pages have been turned.
The Scent Of A Lie, a collection of 14 related short stories by Calgary writer and editor Paulo da Costa, marks the debut of a remarkable writer.
Artists in any medium will say that the most difficult work is thatwhich appears simplest. In the same way, da Costa’s spare and poetic tales of ordinary people facing the trials and joys of everyday life reveal a deep love of his craft.
Most of the stories are set in the coastal mountains of Portugal, where farmers eke out meagre existences among the hillside terraces. Although never specified, the stories appear to be set sometime before World War II.
Many of the inhabitants dream of leaving their hardscrabble existences, lured by the shimmering coast, the warm bosom of love or the promise of military glory in the colonies.
We are introduced into this world through the parish priest, who remembers his arrival 50 years before, when a delegation handed over a bouquet of roses and the key to his new home – along with clear instructions: The Senhores informed him that everyone regretted the tragic accident that had befallen his predecessor, Padre Baptista. A hunting party of Senhores, tricked by the devilish dusk, had shot the unfortunate man, mistaking the priest for a lone black wolf.
“Terrible tragedy. If only we understood the Lord’s ways, His will, calling home a disciple after only a year of service. A year of youthful misguided sermons on meaningless moral matters, failing to give guidance to the people’s spiritual hunger,” Senhor Ambrosio said, placing his heavy hand on Padre Lucas’ shoulder. Padre Lucas assented with a nod of his head and his fist tightened around the rose stems, thorns sinking into his flesh, drawing a trickle of blood.
We enter the magical world of hermit Felismina Alves, who can hold stars in the palms of her hands. In the title story, we accompany a young girl who, after being rescued from a well, is able to sniff out lies, cracking the mortar of politeness and hypocrisy that hold the village together.
We meet a young man who must go off to the colonies to fight – and plot his revenge against a negative palm reader by chiselling a new wooden hand while sitting in the trenches. “He slid his engagement ring down the wooden index finger, anticipating his promising new future. Tomas imagined Amelia’s face smiling approvingly and could not wait to show her his masterpiece. Their life together would be idyllic now.”
We follow an earnest boy who proves how trees will reciprocate human love with enduring shelter. One of the cutest stories is about Vera, an anti-social girl who ventually has to be shoved into matrimony: “The church bells stopped, and the pipe organ’s notes were suspended in the air. Vera stood paralysed, halfway to the altar. With a quick swish of her hand, Vera caught the fly criss-crossing her veil. Trapping the fly between her thumb and ring finger she plucked first one wing, then the other. The fly hopped on the palm of her hand. Vera wondered what sort of a life the fly could expect now.”
The two overtly cautionary tales in the book, one mocking the tourist business, the other urbanization, are perhaps the weakest of the lot, because da Costa lets his message override his characters.
But when he lets his characters speak, they sing.
John Terauds is editor of the Star’s What’s On section.
Toronto Star; 02/09/2003