September 2010

Mac Guy

fiction

Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa

Disclaimer: I have no inherent hatred for crustaceans, but Anthony De Sa’s husband as barnacle metaphor, as outlined in his debut novel, Barnacle Love, strikes me as a bit bleak. “Men are all barnacles,” says De Sa. “A barnacle starts out life swimming freely in the ocean. But, when it matures, it must settle down and choose a home.” De Sa does not, however, mention that “settling down” to most barnacles means growing a calcified outer shell whilst attached securely (and permanently) to the underside of a large ocean-going vessel, or perhaps a slow moving whale. Oh, and by the way, many barnacles are also hermaphroditic. Though would-be wives might not be clipping out the “SWB (Single White Barnacle) seeks mate, enjoys barge travel, murky harbors” ads out of the Sunday personals, De Sa’s unapologetically stark characterization of his novel’s protagonist serves as an apt tone-setter for a voyage that ends in loveless, sexless tragedy.

On its surface, Barnacle Love is fiction typical of the immigrant genre. Authored by the offspring of parents who have emigrated from their native land, such novels reflect on their family’s transition to the West. As is typical of such narratives, Barnacle Love reflects on what has been left behind as well as on difficulties in assimilation, and predictably, the principal underlying conflict in De Sa’s work centers around a tension between generations. De Sa distinguishes himself, however, by heightening supporting tensions first through a fresh, unadorned juxtaposition of the old and the new, and second, through the family’s melancholy and elusive understanding of their own motivations for moving to this new world in the first place.

De Sa smartly crafts a kind of photo album comprised of short narrative snapshots that together tell the story of the Rebelo family and the emigration of Manuel, the first born, the prized son turned prodigal. The album, chock full of old-world kitsch and awkward matching outfits, is divided into two distinct halves. In the first half of the story Manuel is holding the camera, while in the second half, as if his enthusiasm for taking pictures has waned, he has relinquished command of the family Instamatic to his son Antonio.

When Manuel first guides our lens at the novel’s opening, he is not yet a man in the world, “suffocating” on his home island “lost as it was in the middle of the Atlantic.” As Miguel looks west into the Atlantic, he longs to shed the burdensome, predictable plans his mother has laid out for him. From the beginning, Manuel appears certain that he is meant for a greater destiny than his mother’s provincial fishing village roots can conceive.  Like the many male literary heroes that have “set out to seek their fortune” before him, however, Manuel’s “fortune” is an entity to be named later, an ambiguous feeling that cannot possibly be clarified within the confines of his homeland.

De Sa seems to imply that Manuel’s longing is common amidst this particular Portuguese culture, so much so that their language has a word for it. “Suadade,” De Sa explains, is “a longing for something so indefinite as to be indefinable.” Manuel’s indefiniteness, characteristic of many coming of age tales before it, lends his abandonment of home life a sense of adventure and heroism, heightened as he survives a shipwreck, and as his innocence is exposed amongst the glittering mercantilism of Newfoundland, his “terra nova.” Whatever romanticism Manuel sets out with, however, is slowly crushed by a series of betrayals, most notably by women and retrospectively, by a pedophilic priest, whose abuses are fully confronted only after Manuel has reached adulthood.

Indeed, Manuel’s journey founders amidst squalls of tragedy, observed most acutely when the second generation of Rebelos takes up the storytelling mantle through Antonio’s perspective. Why Manuel’s fails, however, is left a mystery, both to the reader and to Manuel’s family, and the ambiguity surrounding this question is one of the most engaging elements of the novel. As Manuel lists into alcoholism, De Sa skillfully insinuates the possibility that what Manuel actually seeks is the comfort of his father, who left home (and presumably drowned) when Manuel was still a young boy. That the protagonist ultimately is chasing something illusory seems De Sa’s critique that the pacification of the “suadade” is by its own nature impossible. Manuel is thereby destined to fail in his efforts from the beginning, much as Jay Gatsby is destined to fail in his attempts to achieve his American dream, emblematized in the “green light” at the end of the Daisy’s dock across the lake. But as Fitzgerald condemns Gatsby for his attempt to “beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” De Sa seems to argue that a good long look at his own family history is exactly what Manuel needs. The irony that effervesces -- an inherent veneration of De Sa’s own Portuguese heritage -- is that the answers Manuel seeks are more likely buried in his own family history and culture, not amidst the waves of the Atlantic, and even less so amidst the hollow allure of Western culture.

Perhaps De Sa’s greatest achievement in Barnacle Love lies within his derivation of the “American Dream” as something unreachable for the majority of immigrants, and more importantly, as a fantasy eschewed by iterative generations. It seems that each generation has its own dream that bears little or no resemblance to what precedes it. De Sa makes this motif clear in Antonio’s rebellion against his father’s vague expectations for financial success by dreaming of artistic nobility through drawing and writing. The novel comes full circle as Antonio, ready to launch into adulthood himself, seems prepared to evade his father’s narrow-minded plans for his future just as Manuel did his mother’s.

Whether advocating for a re-appreciation of our own cultural heritage, or simply admonishing those newcomers who have blindly attached themselves to the underside of western cultural phenomena, De Sa allows room for interpretation. For my part, I am going to scrape myself out of this chair, get on my bike, and prove to the world that all men are not barnacles.

Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1565129261
216 Pages