New World Odour

Calgary writer paulo da costa’s short story collection The Scent of a Lie is the most uniformly fresh, sprightly, meaty work of Canadian fiction I’ve read in a long time. It came as a shock to me that the book had difficulty getting published. Now accumulating the attention it deserves, Da Costa’s book won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada and Caribbean Region)—as did similarly groundbreaking works such as Icefields by Thomas Wharton and Chorus of Mushrooms by Hiromi Goto—and just this week it was awarded the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize.

The linked collection of stories centres on the inhabitants of two small communities on the Portuguese coast, from a wealthy landowner to a soldier fighting in the Angolan Civil War, to Florindo Ramos, a dreamer whose love of trees saves his village: “Florindo believed the world’s knowledge entered trees through their leaves and needles and the irrecoverable story of the world was buried in their roots. The trees stored thoughts in their roots. If turned into stumps, they became unable to exhale their memory, unable to release their stories.” The title story is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Most Beautiful Drowned Man in the World, but the collection does not easily fit into the slippery category of “magic realism.” Da Costa traces its “fantastical” qualities to Catholicism’s openness to the miraculous and the pagan influences, via Celtic invasions, on the Portuguese literary imagination.

Born in Angola, Da Costa moved to Portugal when he was five and was exposed to a cross-pollinating range of aesthetics and languages. He moved to Calgary in 1989 and soon became involved with the literary journal Filling Station, becoming its general editor four years ago. He has also published four chapbooks of poetry in English.

As a writer, Da Costa tacks back and forth between Portuguese and English, inhabiting a linguistic space that reminds me of Conrad or Nabokov. These days, all of his fiction is written in English, while much of his poetry is written is Portuguese. This “in-between-ness,” Da Costa explains, has given him unusual freedom from the strictures of either tongue. “The two languages access different selves,” he says. “My writing in Portuguese is more intellectual, while my English writing is completely different, more playful, less bound by the rules. One’s mother tongue has certain natural rigidities in it. English, because I entered it through the back door, has offered me greater freedom of movement.”

There is an allegorical dimension to Da Costa’s stories that explores the massive changes in Portuguese society after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974. His parents’ village went from being peasant agrarian to a heavily industrial area in the space of 20 years, the forests eliminated for eucalyptus pulpwood plantations, the vineyards cut down to benefit mechanized wine production in France and Spain. “My work tends to weave into larger themes,” he says of the mythic, universal resonance of his stories, “which runs against the trend in current writing by emerging Canadian writers.”

His work has been more visible overseas, in places like Brazil, France and Australia, than in Canada. “This collection was rejected by many publishers,” says Da Costa, “who said it didn’t fit in their literary line. That is sad for Canadian readers because editorial committees are only interested in certain literary flavours. We are entering the industrialization of literature, a sort of cultural impoverishment growing out of globalization.” Da Costa currently has two manuscripts searching for a publisher, including a collection of “sudden fictions.” One hopes that his rising acclaim will make the journey less arduous.

PRINT CULTURE – May 29, 2003

by CHRISTOPHER WIEBE

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