Cod, God and Most Things In-Between

Anthony De Sa’s first book, a collection of linked short stories, came out in Canada to critical acclaim, was short listed for the 2008 Giller Prize and the City of Toronto Book Award, and won the Premios Talento Prize in Portugal in 2009. This Archipelago Books’ release marks the arrival of this new Portuguese-Canadian writer’s work in America.

While North America has a strong tradition of immigrant narrative in English (think Nino Ricci, Bharati Mukherjee, Amy Tan), little is known about the lives of the Portuguese before and after their arrival on our shores. De Sa’s stories begin to fill this void with their full-throated descriptions of the Azorean homeland left by Manuel Antonio Rebelo, coddled son of the widowed Maria, who becomes a fisherman and is cast ashore to Newfoundland only to become a decrepit shell of his self in Toronto.

De Sa begins his book with an image of Manuel floundering in the sea oscillating between god and cod, the mainstays of his island life. About to die in the cold waters after his dory has been destroyed by a storm, Manuel recollects his years in the village of Lomba de Maia. We are caught up on his life by the time a leathery man lifts him from the ocean and brings him to the new-found land of terra nova. In the next story De Sa documents the abusive nature of Andrew, the drunken fisherman who saves Manuel, and the longings of his disabled daughter, Pepsi, who dreams of binding this young Portuguese fisherman to herself. Their fumbling love affair is contrasted with letters Manuel writes to his stern mother resolving their long standing conflict and making his peace in the new land. But in the end, Pepsi’s desperation for a life with Manuel undoes his plans and hopes for them.

But by the third story of the collection, Manuel begins to come to terms with losing his links to the cod-fishing traditions of his home and to the god-fearing, priest-following habits he has learned as a child. In a nod to the abuse scandals, De Sa’s Padre Carlos stands behind choir boys and breathes against their ears while they look to the statue of the Nosso Senhora hoping for their shame to be swept away in tears. Before Manuel leaves Newfoundland for Toronto, he manages to take his revenge on Padre Carlos and break with a God who did not intercede for him as a child or as a man.

This disconnect may be one of the engines that fuels Manuel’s later disintegration as he turns into a drunk, abusive husband and father in the second half of the book when the stories reveal his failure in the big city. Beautiful like a doll with blue eyes and blond hair, Manuel begins an affair with a nun at St. Michael’s Hospital where he works as a cleaner. He steals supplies and is fired. He moves among various jobs, unable to hold on to them just as he cannot hold on to his self-esteem.

The voice in these five stories shifts to the second generation, to Manuel’s son Antonio, the eponymous author, who traces his own freedom from the confines of the Portuguese neighbourhood, where pigs are slaughtered in garages, where church parades are held in a manner more traditional than on the islands, and where men at a pool hall stick their penises through holes in fences for boys to suck them off. Antonio must make sense of his world Azorean in the neighbourhood but Canadian at school and beyond. De Sa paints an intimate and emotionally charged portrait of a family coping with a failing father, an overworked mother, and children drawn to the excitement and dangers of life in a big city.

Barnacle Love may be a debut collection, but De Sa reveals a sure, deft touch with words and narrative. He has the pulse of these characters and even when the action gets operatic (a mother disappointed with her new daughter-in-law crushes glass and barnacles into her bed), the narrative remains supple, and the characters do not stray far from the life-like. There is drama in every story, and each story has a life of its own, giving the narrative a larger-than-life feel to it. Despite the linked nature of these stories, this book is not a novel, however, and readers who want answers to their questions will remain dissatisfied that De Sa does not tie down the threads of the all the narratives in this book. Instead, as in life, the sails flap in the breeze and the narratives meander along their courses pushed along by unknown currents and changing ocean winds.

Barnacle Love may well signal the first of many books by this talented writer and is a signal contribution to the Portuguese dimension of immigrant narratives in North America.

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