|“The gentle morning breeze found Prudêncio in his hammock, enveloped in a blanket of butterflies. The butterflies fanned their wings. The hammock swayed. Robins, perched on the hammock’s rope, sang. Through the overcast sky, a beam of sunshine wrapped Prudêncio’s body in gold. Frogs croaked a solemn requiem. Sunflowers graciously turned their heads and bowed. A white rain of almond petals floated from the sky. The morning had arrived to greet Prudêncio Casmurro before he returned to the earth.”
– from The Scent of a Lie
When I met up with paulo da costa for coffee on a sunny Monday morning at the Good Earth Café, it was evident the Commonwealth Prize-winning author (he won for Best First Book – Canada and the Caribbean) was quite surprised by all of the attention his book of short fiction, The Scent of a Lie, was generating.
Pinned to the couch, a publicist at his right, he was cornered. I sat down, introduced myself and then started quoting my favourite passages – an ardent fan after devouring the book in one sitting. We swerved around the probing subjects of awards, poetry, love, culture, religion and gardening with impunity. The Calgary-based writer hails from Portugal and attributes his melancholic, romantic nature to his country of origin.
“My Canadian side tones down the drama of the Portuguese spirit. It is a hybrid spirit – there is cross-pollination,” explains da Costa. “It is very Catholic and very, very pagan, too. There are hundreds of Celtic sites still preserved in Northern Portugal. A good Catholic enjoys the earthly pleasures and then confesses. Earthly pleasures are a priority,” he says with a grin.
The Scent of a Lie is evocative pastoral fiction, rife with olive trees, hot sun, gardens and wild grasses. The stories are set in a small town with medieval undertones. The characters are priests, housewives, gardeners and retired military officers. In one story, “A Breath of Memory,” the protagonist, Florindo, marries a tree.
Da Costa has evoked a charming, romantic, Old World sensibility that rivals Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His magic realism is heady but not saturated with adjectives. The sophisticated nature of the prose, the European setting and the fable-like subject matter differentiate this work from his Canadian kitchen table realist counterparts. The only shortcoming of the book is the badly executed cover art – it just screams regional press. Let’s hope that for the next print run – and there will be a next – the publisher springs for a more sophisticated image.
Da Costa says he always loved reading and writing – he remembers being 11 years old and writing a composition that impressed his teacher so much he showed it to the whole school. He stopped writing in his teens, but started again in a new language, English, when he moved to Canada 10 years ago.
While developing his craft in Calgary, the emerging writer thoughtfully sought out the assistance of the many writers in residence at the U of C’s Markin-Flanagan Program.
“I went to almost all of them. I was the first one there. The book is communal – so many people helped. I prefer to work with a mentor, someone who can help me with writing and the human aspect of it. To be a writer you need to learn the tricks and skills to live the life of writing. It is an endurance test. You need a spiritual leader who knows the seasons of life.”
Da Costa also knows when it’s time to step back and let the story take over – he says he trusts the intelligence of the reader.
“They can read the poetry and the passion. It is the blood that runs through the story. You trust. You don’t interfere. It is like raising a child. You help the child to strike a fire. Once it is going it has a movement of its own. The task is to move out of the way.”
An accomplished lyric poet (and general editor of filling Station, a literary magazine), his fiction is infused with the rich texture of a poet’s craft. “I think they (the poetry and the prose) are making love to each other and sometimes, or perhaps most times, their boundaries merge. One of my next books pushes further into each genre. There are pieces in that book that read both as a poem and as a prose story.”
I ask da Costa if he is a romantic, knowing from experience that all lyric poets are to some extent tethered by desire – using poetry to write their way through the challenges of the human condition. I find that he is no exception: “I believe our potential as a species does not lie with the rocket on the moon, how far we can go through the galaxies, but instead on how close to each other we can become – the earth, the other sentient and inanimate beings. How big can our hearts become?
“The language of the heart is to me the most mysterious and challenging of all of the earthly languages. I like to explore and learn about what I know the least.”
Da Costa has been sidelined by an injury recently, and I ask him how he is managing adversity. He responds with the optimism and fervour of the incurable romantic.
“It informs my writing… despite adversities, despite the pain, hope is never destroyed. I believe in the endurance of the human spirit, our ability to change and act. I hope The Scent of a Lie transmits hope. I believe ingrained cynicism is not helpful to our lives. It is defeatist.”
Spoken like a man who is not easily defeated. After writing in his second language for 10 years in relative obscurity, in an adopted country, he wins an international prize for best first book. The Scent of a Lie is magic realism, Canadian-style, and da Costa’s quietly passionate writing infused with optimism merits all of the attention he can handle.