Margin: Exploring Modern 

Magical Realism
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Paulo da Costa
© 2005
Compact disc, 72 minutes
$15 (Canadian currency)

WHEN PAULO da Costa handed me his CD of short short stories, Midwife of Torment & Other Stories, I couldn't wait to listen to it. I had just heard him read live in Vancouver, BC and was impressed by his wonderful reading voice. Certainly a recording of his stories, told in his own voice, would be a treasure.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to read—er, listen—to the CD until weeks after he'd put it into my hand. I'm not often in my car, where most CDs are listened to, and when I'm in my car, I've got my kids with me. Though I'm familiar with Paulo's writing, I wasn't sure how well it might be received by my two school-aged daughters, and there's always that latent concern among parents that a new CD (or other form of entertainment media) might have something in it that requires "parental guidance." I wanted to preview the work before unleashing it on my children. Just in case.

I'm not a practicing books-on-tape consumer. Besides the reasons cited above, I guess I'm always afraid that if I'm listening to something in the car, it will put me to sleep (not because it's boring, but because, well, storytelling does that to me). And my home life (including life in the home office) doesn't seem to offer good opportunities for "listening time." It's not that we have the TV going a lot, because we don't. It's more because I can't read and listen at the same time. And life as a full-time parent means the day is broken up into so many smaller intervals that any attempt to listen to a recording (or a radio program, for that matter) inevitably means I will miss chunks of what I'm listening to while I transition from one task to the next.

I finally had an hour commute, kid free, in the car the other day, so I took advantage and slid Paulo's CD into the player.

New media mean new ways of thinking, and Paulo's done himself proud taking on this concept. But before I give the full review of his recording, I want to comment briefly on the brilliance of digitally recording one's short prose in an audio collection.

I'm aware of the popularity of audiobooks (on tape or CD), but these are usually comprised of single, book-length works. There are essays compiled and produced for the CD format, as well. And poetry, of course, is heading into this realm, which is a delightful development, in my opinion. So why not short stories? Flash fictions are especially suited for the format (all of Paulo's works in Midwife are characterized as "sudden fictions").

Doing a little poking around on the web, I've learned that short stories are making their way into podcasts as well. This is a wonderful concept; folks can download short fiction (sometimes coming daily from its writers) to their iPods. How very cool! I imagine all the hip young people out there who might absorb their literature in this way, and I am buoyed by that possibility.

I'm already receiving Bruce Holland Roger's weekly short shorts in email (for an easy $5 annually), which is another brilliant way to use the new media to distribute work to interested readers.

Short stories from classic literature are also showing up in places like From their mission statement:

"ThoughtAudio is part of the emerging field of digital sound, addressing the download market, the commuter and long distance driver market as well as the truly infatuated thinker. Music pervades the internet world. But if you think about it, music is merely one layer in a quest for thinking, exploring and integrating the tools that make life a more enriched venture. Imagine a teenager in 1955 with an AM transistor radio slapped to their ear. Imagine the groovy 1960’s as college students hover around their favorite albums, spellbound by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the rock generation. Fast-forward to today’s iPOD, where millions of digital downloads are available. Each generation embraces technology to enrich their lives. Then stop—ask yourself—is there a place for The Art of War, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Siddhartha, Greek myths?"

I find these movements into new media exciting. They open up new ways to deliver literature to the masses, to celebrate and honor it. So what if young people don't read as much as they used to? This might be the perfect remedy for that particular lament.

If this trend catches on, the world could truly benefit from an explosion in literature from both emerging and established voices. With the print publishing world in a state of economic uncertainty, and the small press working itself to death to meet the demands of readers that New York's big houses aren't meeting, it makes sense that this relatively inexpensive audio format should be seen as the next great alternative.

Interestingly, I don't feel the same way about digital publishing (as in, e-books). People haven't been as hip to the technologies of electronic books for the consistently stated reason that they like the feel and look of books. In contrast, getting "hardware" to read a book (for me, anyway) seems like just one more gadget I don't need.

But the audio delivery of short fiction, in particular, makes perfect sense. The technology to access literary CDs like Paulo's is already a mainstay in most homes in America and, indeed, across the world. CDs are, as their name implies, compact and easy to store (like books). They have interesting jackets and can continue our love affair with cover art. And listening is a quick and easy way to get a jolt of story when one needs it. (Some people prefer to "see the movie;" it might become de rigueur someday to "listen to the CD," over time. Think about it.)

In fact, I'd say audio CDs probably leave more impact on the minds of listeners than film. The oration of a story, told with the flare of an excellent reader, sparks the imagination in a way that film simply can't. Film is so immediate and visually stimulating that it leaves very little for the mind to construct on its own; audio stories allow you to build your own stage, envision your characters, use your mind's eye to "see" the dramas that transpire. It's this interactive nature of the audio "tale" that's likely to be more fulfilling, in the end, when compared to "seeing the movie."

And we're talking story, after all (literally). American culture has lost its way when it comes to its oral tradition; only within those neighborhoods and families where storytelling is integral to cultural identity does the tradition remain alive in the US.

(Though I would also give a big thumbs up to the International Storytelling Center for bringing us festivals nationwide so that we may learn to sit, listen to and value the oral arts once again.)

As expected, Paulo's voice translates well to the digital format, I'm happy to say. He has a rich Portuguese accent which colors the tones and consonance of his words. Paulo is quite hypnotic to listen to. The CD simply would not be as wonderful had he not voiced it himself.

The stories, one after the next, kept me rapt the entire time I listened. I was laughing out loud at times, and giving audible sighs of satisfaction at the endings of some stories.

You can read two stories from Midwife here in our special Iberian theme edition, by the way. "Roses, Lilacs and Chrysanthemums" appears as "The Silence of the Grave" in print; "The Fool" appears under the same title in both CD and print. While, of course, these are good "reads," you should really consider getting the CD and listening to them instead. Seriously. Paulo's voice brings himself into the stories in a way you can't imagine on your own.

The first four stories in the collection ("Roses, Lilacs and Chrysanthemums," "Pleasant Troubles," "The Fool" and the cover story, "Midwife of Torment"), are all set within an unidentified landscape which bears resemblance to that of Paulo's native Portugal. In the middle of the collection he places a tryptich, of magical "fish stories" under the title "Aqua Libera," which takes on an estuarian landscape. Perhaps this is an influence from life in Canada; Paulo seems to have interlaced his Portuguese roots with his experiences living in Canada in a way that is both revealing and universally appealing in his work.

Following this fantastic nugget are a series of parables which incorporate Man and Nature. "Treed" is a kind of creation myth told from the point of view of a tree. There is one extremely short piece in the collection, "Joana's Longing," which delivers more like a lovely prose poem than a sudden fiction. After having been immersed in work from the Iberian Peninsula for so many weeks, I found this short bit a simple but extremely complicated rendering of the CD's theme, torment, and expect it will be one of those works which haunts me a decade from now.

Torment is, indeed, the thread that weaves these pieces together. Paulo gives us a psychic who predicts the events of his own death; a baby born with an extremely long, lizard-like tongue; a fish who wishes it could fly; an elderly man who cannot keep up with the dazzling pace of his grandchildren; a blackbird in a cage. But despite the despairing connotations of the word torment, each of these stories belies the theme with an essence of idealism and redemption. A boy who cannot keep himself clean enough is given respite from the community who, ultimately, feels responsible for his condition. The fish which dies in mid-air has still made its dream come true. A man rises from his grave to celebrate the thoughtful way his neighbors have remembered him.

Listening to Paulo's CD reminded me of that Johnny Moses story cassette I picked up at a storytelling festival outside Chicago in 1995, the one that my kids listened to as preschoolers until the thing simply wore out. Paulo's stories are, for the most part, kid-friendly. (Oh, perhaps a conservative soccer mom or two might object to the suggestiveness of the long-tongued protagonist in "Pleasant Troubles." The notion of falling face-first into an outhouse pit in "Midwife of Torment" might also be off-putting for some, as might be the presence of the village curandera for those of a more strict Christian perspective.)

Frankly, I can't wait to let the girls listen to the stories. I've learned over the years that children, if introduced early enough, can handle the complexity of more literary work if you approach it in the right way. I have no doubt they will come to love Paulo's magical realist motifs on death, shame, ambition, longing and fear—complicated subjects that, when treated as parables and allegories in Midwife, offer beautifully rendered lessons about dreaming, adapting, loving, forgiving and believing.

You can only purchase this CD (his sister, Marina Matos, provided the lovely watercolor image for the cover, by the way) through Paulo's website; please do. Not only because it's worth the price, but because it supports a positive new direction for literary dissemination, because short prose forms are a delight to listen to in the car, and because the digital CD could very well return to us the pleasures of oral tradition. Maybe one day families will sit around the CD player on Friday nights, listening to story instead of watching TV. These are lofty ideals, sure, but if literature isn't the wellspring of hope, what is?



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Rev'd 2005/06/10