a review by Caitlin Stall-Paquet
Le sermon aux poissons is the first book in a Lisbon-based trilogy that loves nothing more than to blur the lines between myth and reality. The book opens on a rough morning for the main character, Antoine, who has decided to leave behind his Montreal life and the woman he loves to go after a vaguely exotic idea of happiness. His pursuit is modelled partly on a Kerouacian ideal of wandering and “living life to the fullest” – which essentially means chronic drinking and womanizing. This arc makes Antoine an anti-hero of sorts: it’s hard to sympathize with a character who throws away the fundamentals of his life to chase a fictional interpretation of living that’s more or less fantasy, hurting others as he goes.
Antoine’s womanizing pervades the entire narrative and further undermines his character, though any hurt it causes his wife Clara remains off-screen. He lets her return on her own to Montreal and then bemoans her absence for the rest of the book. He also progressively builds a dichotomy around her based in her lightness and blondness, which is juxtaposed with the darkness of the Iberian women he meets and lusts after. The swiftness of his sexual impulses and capacity to turn women into mere symbols certainly don’t make him any more endearing. As the author takes a page from Nabokov, these women begin to overlap and become mirrors of each other, both in Antoine’s dreams and in his waking hours, pointing to a deeper layer in this story: an extremely unreliable narrator who reveals himself through distorted points of view. As the narration slips in and out of the first person, Antoine keeps questioning his own accounts and continues to stray further into his alcohol-infused wanderings, and it becomes evident that the idea here is to draw attention to the fact that we are being told a story.
The title of the book and the main character’s name evoke storytelling by bringing us back to one of the oldest accounts we have: biblical parables. St. Anthony, shunned and with no one to listen to his sermon, decided to deliver it to the fish that then increasingly congregated at his feet, nicely illustrating the necessity of story telling. This parable is told to Antoine by another figure who is mythologized in the book as the biblical character Simao Mago (Simon Magus, a magician) because they both have a broken foot. The link between mythologization and physical weakness here elegantly undercuts the aggrandized elements within the story, such as Antoine’s romanticization of a new life in a European city. In these moments, the author skilfully shows us the seams of the story, which make a lot more sense than Antoine’s impossible desires. This foreigner’s hopes of changing his life simply by changing settings are also a symbol of Portugal’s misplaced expectations for a post-Salazar state heading toward a recession.
Repeated images of homelessness, debauchery and infidelity serve as both a reminder of the dire realities that can follow the quest of unachievable wants and the destitution that may await at the end of the path our anti-hero is taking. Delusion and sanity walk side by side, usually indistinguishable except for brief moments, as when Antoine stares into the eyes of Ciro, a homeless character who returns throughout the story like a ghostly apparition. In these flashes poverty, racism against growing immigrant populations, and a divided culture are in plain sight, but only to be buried once more in Antoine’s booze-and-sex-focused wandering. In the end, the more he tries to drastically change his present, the more it stays statically the same. As it is said time and time again throughout the trilogy, quoting Salazar, “People rarely change. The Portuguese, never.” ≈
From Le sermon aux poissons
by Patrice Lessard
≈ translated by Caitlin Stall-Paquet
The first time he arrived in Lisbon, he was with Sara, not Clara.
Four or five years earlier, Sara had greeted him at the airport. He’d left Montreal alone two weeks earlier and was really looking forward to reuniting with Clara. He was coming from Paris (or was it Madrid? No, Madrid was much later) and had booked a flight that landed in Lisbon a half hour before Clara’s, he didn’t want her getting any ideas, if he’d arrived a few days earlier or even the day before, she could have imagined that he’d taken advantage of her absence to sleep with Sara, It’s so easy to sleep with an ex, she’d said to him one day when she was asking him about his feelings towards Sara, She’s no longer a part of my fantasies, Antoine had answered, You still had more than enough time to fool around on the day I arrived in Lisbon, I wasn’t interested! said Antoine, What about her? Clara asked, I don’t know, I don’t care, you’re the one I love, he’d answered, You still coincidentally had all that time, concluded Clara. Clara’s plane had indeed arrived four hours late, but that obviously wasn’t his fault! And besides, it upset him, he’d missed Clara so much during his two weeks in Paris.
When Sara had arrived at the airport, she’d found Antoine alone with his luggage and hugged him very tightly in her arms, lovingly, he’d thought, I’m so happy to see you! What’s it been? Five years? Six years? He didn’t know anymore, he didn’t feel like counting, he said, Eight years, to impress her, but he had no idea and was sad that Clara’s plane was late. Sara suggested that they bring his bag back to her place. Indeed, it was useless to stay there waiting for four hours.
In the taxi, they talked about the past, Do you remember when… that kind of thing. Sara was French but had lived in Montreal for a few years, that’s where they’d met and lived together for a couple of months. She did odd jobs here and there, they’d met in the restaurant she worked at. In the taxi towards Lisbon, she told him about how she’d almost lost an eye a couple months earlier, You shouldn’t wear contacts, it’s really dangerous, she had started saying, I almost went blind because I wore contacts, Antoine didn’t respond, Sara continued, I’ll tell you about it.
She was at work and felt a sharp pain in her left eye. She’d taken out her contacts, but the pain persisted to the point where it quickly became unbearable. She told her superior that she needed to leave, had to go to the clinic, he grumbled a bit but Sara refused to discuss it and called a taxi that drove her to the hospital. The doctor first diagnosed her with ocular herpes and collected secretion samples, planning deeper analysis (a series of obscene images about ocular herpes flashed in Antoine’s mind). They prescribed her drops that had no effect and, three hours later, the pain had intensified, but the analysis results led to a diagnosis that a fungus had probably proliferated in her contact solution and was attacking her conjunctiva. This time, an ophthalmologist prescribed Sara with right medication and kept her at the hospital under observation. He gave her a leave of absence, ordering her to stay blindfolded, This fungus proliferates thanks to light so, once you get home, you must block out all the windows and live in total darkness for a month, it’s essential for your recovery, the ophthalmologist had ordered.
Sara obviously thought that she wouldn’t be able to get by on her own if she was blinded. She needed help, but didn’t know who to ask since she’d only been in the city for a few months. She contacted a colleague with whom she’d had an affair, but he refused to help her despite her distress, probably to keep his new wife from getting jealous, It’s so easy to sleep with your ex, I understand, said Sara, but the fact remains that I wasn’t even his ex! We had a fling, that’s it, but it saddened me that he had so little consideration for me. She’d then turned to Manuel, whom she knew very little at the time, but who’d immediately rushed over to her place with food, large pieces of black cardboard and tape. He’d started by confining her to her bedroom with all the blinds down so that he could block out the windows with cardboard before making her something to eat. Afterwards, he’d curled up in a corner with a flashlight and read to her.
Sara had lived in total darkness for a month. She’d had to learn to do everything as a blind person, while Manuel came almost every day to help her and keep her company. It must have been a horrible month, commented Antoine, and she said, No, on the contrary, it was wonderful, and I remembered how Sara, who hated her life as much as Antoine, magnified its worst moments like this and turned her past into edifying fictions. She went on, I got much closer to Manuel over that period, he became very dear to me and it was wonderful to live in the dark, to have to relearn everything, I’m sure that this experience has made me a better person.
Once the month was over, Sara went to the hospital as a blind woman accompanied by Manuel and, after looking at her eye, the ophthalmologist told her that she would probably always see a spot because the fungus had eaten up a part of the conjunctiva that was directly in front of her pupil. Needless to say, this was terrible news, she said, can you imagine what it must be like to always feel that your sight is obstructed, to constantly have a matte spot in your field of vision? True, that would be awful, answered Antoine, but it’s better than being blind. She acted as if she hadn’t heard him and went on with her story, Manuel decided to bring me to the Campo de Santana to put an offering at the feet of the Sousa Martins statue, he was a 19th century doctor who became a popular saint of sorts, actually he is not a saint but he’s know for having performed miracles and sick people put offerings at his feet, he’s even the patron saint of a church or something, la Fraternidade Espírita Cristã, The naïve piety of the Portuguese is reassuring, no doubt, said Antoine, and she, Don’t make fun, and anyway, it was to make Manuel happy, he brought me right up to the monument, I was still blindfolded and I lit a candle, put it at the feet of the statue and prayed, and don’t you know, when I went back to the hospital two weeks later, the spot had slipped! I still see it a tiny bit when I make a conscious effort, but it slipped almost completely out of the pupillary axis! It’s a miracle! The doctor cried out and I answered, Sara said, Yes! It’s a miracle! And she added, Portugal is a land of miracles! ≈