“Place tends to occupy an important role in my books. The Scent of a Lie is strongly rooted in place, and in my view, the Caima River, the Freita hills and the Cambra valley are equal protagonists in that book, even if perhaps “invisible” to some readers. To understand a place I need to breathe and smell its landscape, to see and hear its people, fauna and flora. Touch the stones. The subtle details provide the authenticity, the trust that allows a reader to let themselves slip into my imaginary world.”
— paulo da costa
Author paulo da costa, born in Angola and raised in Portugal, came to Canada in his early twenties. His first short story collection, The Scent of a Lie, is set in the hills of Serra da Freita, where he stayed for six months in 1993. He was back in Portugal for another six months in 1998, where he finished writing the bulk of The Midwife of Torment. His work again took him from his home in Victoria, B.C. last year to begin researching and writing a novel about the 1974 Carnation Revolution.
The Scent of a Lie received the 2003 Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Canada-Caribbean Region and the W. O Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize. Ten years later he published another work of fiction, The Green and Purple Skin of the World, with Broadview Press/Freehand Books. His poetry and fiction have been published widely in literary magazines around the world and translated into Italian, Spanish, Serbian, Slovenian and Portuguese.
The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories by paulo da costa is a book of short stories, or sudden fictions [under 1,000 words], divided into six parts: “Affections,” “Slowness,” “Aqua Libera,” “Beneath Our Beds,” “Force” and “Fathers.” In this collection, we find provoking thoughts unveiled slowly in an incantatory, lyrical language, revealing our deepest yearnings, frustrations, losses, insufficiencies, and happiness(es), too. His work makes us see, feel and be more: to have profound insights into our lives and the world; to understand what makes us live the way we do and realize that perhaps we ought to be living another way to fulfill our humanity.
In The Midwife of Torment we find universal situations related to the afflictions of the modern world. Many stories relate specifically to rural, Catholic, conservative Portugal, where the author grew up. In fact, the author told me [Marques] recently that some of the characters in this collection also appeared in his earlier story collection, The Scent of a Lie (2002), for “they refused to die there.” No matter where and when the action takes place, the characters seem to be burdened by the same or similar existential problems. They are in distress or trying to grow out of their smallness, to understand how the many aspects of their lives connect with the lives of others, and how in fact, they ought to become cognizant about everyone and everything because everyone and everything is tied to them.
Da costa’s writing calls us away from an individualistic and anthropomorphic ethos and asks that we see ourselves as part of what I call the Great Collectivity of beings (humans, animals, plants), that we enlarge our conception of ourselves, and in so doing, reach another (better) way of being. The author pushes us to recognize that not only are we responsible for our own happiness but we are also responsible for the suffering and oppression of other humans and all that exists; we are thus responsible for the very health and survival of our planet. The non-human physical world is here presented as a sentient entity that we need. This gives da costa’s writing an endearing holistic and animist quality, such as in the story “The Apocalypse of Stillness,” where a man enjoys the force of a thunderous rain openly rather than finding shelter inside the house. We witness here the ecstatic, quasi-religious, mystical communion between a man and the elements:
Without yet a saving face of raindrops on the dust of the yard, I anticipate the moisture licking my palms, softening the weary skin, and I raise my hands to the sky in supplication. The wind ripping the oak foliage crowds out all thoughts and even birds have swallowed their songs. The raging rain falls with the determination of the self-righteous, at last sinks its arrows into the earth. The urge to run in the yard and dance, spin and spin with the grass, blown and tossed with the leaves scattered in the yard, overtakes me. Struck by lightning, an oak tree creaks, undecided whether to kneel or to stand in face of force. The burnt smell of bark occupies my nostrils. (177) It is a consolation to hear the argument of wood and glass against the forces of nature. I do not stop it. I am still rocking on the porch chair when the sun rises and erases the storm with the blink of its drying eye. The breath of the morning leaves a trail of cold down my neck, seeps into my chest. A familiar, earthly perfume populates the motionless air. A conclusion to the argument has arrived. (178)
The story “Unnatural Migrations” reads like an ode to the tree. Da costa speaks to us in touching, pleading and almost accusatory language, calling us to responsibility and consciousness. He wants us to see, feel, acknowledge and respect the tree, that being that has given us so much:
Truth be known, I could be called a traitor. But I can’t bear to remain silent while you are dragged away from your ancestral homes by the thousands. You, who harbour no sliver of hatred, falling to your knees, dignified, with no time for a prayer. If you could run, would you? I admire your poise, standing proud. You are another of the forgotten races. Brothers and sisters breathing side by side from a time before us and them. My tribe cannot distinguish one of you from the next. You are the feared foreigners. I grew up with your darker cousins for my neighbours. Deep wrinkled skin, herded around the globe like slaves, you survive away from your native soil and thrive in inhospitable places, penned between the concrete of our cities. You build our houses without complaint. In our childhood we swing in your arms. Our hearts, our unrequited love, we tattoo on your skin. (105)
What we also see come through in a strong way in this collection, especially in the section “Fathers” and in the stories, “The Supermarket Jungle” or “The Playground,” is the involvement of the father in the raising of his children. The father’s spontaneous tenderness toward his daughter, and his ability to enjoy fatherhood, are balanced against the tedious and slow nature of domestic work. The father figure is fully engaged in raising the children: he shows affection and sings lullabies to his children when they are in distress, he plays with them openly, and in so doing, experiences his full humanity, his full manhood. In this sense, this book is a call for fathers to step up to their job as (full and responsible) human beings, by moving away from their traditional masculine roles:
His daughter rushes toward him, a cry above the playing swirl. She delivers him a scraped hand to be fixed. She nests in his lap. He closes the warm wings of his arms over her hiccupping body and blows on her wound. Blows with such fierceness the pain flies away to the upper branches of a poplar tree. (“The Playground” 159)
From the sandbox his daughter smiles and blows him a kiss. The man lunges in the air and catches the kiss with his baseball glove. He blows another one back, the kiss reaches his daughter despite the strong headwind, and she falls backwards on the sand from the kiss’s impact, laughing without control. (“The Playground” 161)
Da costa is also often critical of and satirical toward the middle-upper urbanized class who shy away from nature and want to protect their children from the elements as if the elements were malefic, or as if being closer to nature were a sign of unrefined (uncivilized, irresponsible) behaviour. We see this mocking undertone in the story, “The Playground.” And the story “The Supermarket Jungle” shows another ironic twist as we witness a father who refuses to buy bananas for his little girl (her favourite fruit) because he wants to be environmentally conscious and buy seasonal fruit grown locally. The little girl has a tantrum and the people in the supermarket think the father has no money to buy her bananas and they offer to buy it. This story illustrates how people are unaware of what they are doing: they fail to understand how eating Chiquita bananas that come from Mexico may have all kind of negative consequences related to climate change and even child labour. In this sense, da costa’s work is directly political — it calls us to be aware of our daily actions and lifestyle, how they affect people in other parts of the world or the health of our environment. The local becomes global and the personal becomes collective.
The title story, “The Midwife of Torment,” is a powerful call to collective responsibility and consciousness. How does the suffering of the other relate to my own doings? What is my responsibility toward the others of this world: their suffering, their inner torments and psychological distresses? How do I perceive the other? Does that perception of the other reflect his/her true(er) self or is it socially constructed, defining that other through inflexible paradigms related to gender, class, ideas about beauty, normalcy, etc.? These questions all seem to be addressed in this story, in one way or another, as in many other stories of the collection. In “The Midwife of Torment,” a young man, Florindo, falls into the outhouse hole in the public gardens. Despite being cleaned by his mother, he “never believed he would be clean again.” (81)
As a last resort, and in order to try and get rid of the stench, Florindo seeks the help of the Curandeira (the traditional healer). She recommends that he stares the danger in the face, in other words, that he looks at the “shit.” In the end the entire village, under her guidance, agrees to help cure Florindo by washing him by the public fountain while throwing away the contents of their night pots. In a magic-realist style with highly comical and satirical undertones, this story elucidates how the suffering of the “other” (Florindo) ought to be our business, for we may be responsible for it. The villagers are moved by his suffering and take action to help him:
“We need to fight alike with alike,” Felismina answered. “It’s everyone’s excrement we’re discussing.” In truth no one could deny using the public outhouse at one time or another. “Therefore,” she insisted, “it’s our refuse at the bottom of the outhouse. All of us are implicated in Florindo’s torment.” (82) At midnight, on the full moon, with steam rising from the magic concoction, a procession — from toddlers in mothers’ arms to elders leaning on stronger shoulders — congregated around the fountain, night potties in hand. One by one, they stepped out of their shoes, and into the depths of the boy’s nightmare, taking turns bathing Florindo Ramos, from his toes to the folds of his ears. (83)
This story, as many others in da costa’s overall oeuvre, also points to the fact that we should attempt to find alleviation from our existential pains through many sources: religion, science, traditional medicine. This is yet another important aspect of the holistic essence of da costa’s work: the seeking of knowledge via various epistemologies because no discipline or system has yet mastered the science of healing.
Da costa’s writing is powerful because it allows us to arrive at insights and gain consciousness through symbolically rich literary grammar. It serves to remind us that literature is an effective medium to access our deeper consciousness, gain illumination and wisdom, attain fulfilment, or at least appease our suffering momentarily, since living is always a trial, always demanding growth, reconsideration of our ways of being and doing, and adaptation. To live is to suffer and to abjure that fact because of the modern egotistical capitalist ethos that seeks constant happiness is infantile and counterproductive, and cannot make us wholesome, as we see in the story, “The God of Shadows.” The “midwife of torment” delivers our own suffering and the acknowledgment of the suffering of others, which may be caused by us — this is what allows us to develop empathy — ultimately making us better, happier and more fulfilled human beings who can build a better world.
Like the honeycomb that the bee makes visible through her constant and concentrated devotion by going from flower to flower to collect the exact, best and precious pollen that will create just the right honey, da costa’s clever, attentive prose makes us become aware of what may be the cure or the assuagement for many of our afflictions. Da costa’s fiction continuously awakens and seduces us with insight after insight in a multitude of situations and socio-cultural and temporal contexts. In a style that mixes magic realism — a genre that aims at restoring spirituality, awe, enchantment and holism to a desacralized, compartmentalized world — with lyricism and wisdom, we are called to take the world and ourselves seriously.
Irene Marques is a bilingual writer (English and Portuguese) and scholar who has taught at various universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and York University. Marques’ creative writing intersects with her academic interests. The author of three poetry collections, and the Portuguese language short story collection Habitando na Metáfora do Tempo: Crónicas Desejadas, her most recent publication is the novel My House is a Mansion (2015, Leaping Lyon Books/York University). For more about her academic accomplishments, please visit Irene Marques.
“On Writing, with paulo da costa.” Open Book, June 6, 2017.