1876 A reluctance to join in
How to Clean a Fish and Other Adventures in Portugal
by Esmeralda Cabral
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, May 16, 2023
$27.99 / 9781772126556 (paperback)
Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb
Well, first of all, you won’t learn how to clean a fish. Secondly, … But let’s start at the beginning.
Esmeralda Cabral is a writer living in Vancouver. Of Portuguese descent. Or more than that. Actually born in Portugal, sort of, in the Azores, those Portuguese islands in the Atlantic. It means when she speaks Portuguese on the mainland, the locals wonder where she’s from, just as in Vancouver people wonder where she’s from. Are you Pakistani? Cree?
Othering and duality are two of the issues in this book. Cabral doesn’t like being othered and she feels torn about her duality. Her son cheers for Portugal in soccer, but what will happen when Portugal plays Canada? She is the daughter of Portuguese parents and the mother of Canadian children, so what does that make her?
Perhaps to find out she took a trip to Portugal in 2014, exploring the past to understand the present. And getting immersed in fish. Fish in the markets, fish at the seashore, fish on your plate. Portugal is a very fishy place, though you have to observe the proprieties: don’t ask for sardines until it’s sardine season – but once it is, wow: watch the harvesters haul in nets of them, pulling them up on the beach, where some of them flip and flop and try to escape. One young woman even picks one up and throws it back in the sea: You’re free now, she seems to say, defiantly.
Esmeralda, though, mostly focuses on learning to cook fish, plunging her hands into the sliminess, connecting to her inner Portuguese self. She even learns how to clean the fish (but she doesn’t tell us) and we follow her as she overcomes her aversion to the smelly, noisy market to become one who chats with the fishmongers.
Not that she ever learns their names. She’s too shy to ask. Her inner Canadian prevents her perhaps, and throughout the book we see Esmeralda being timid or uncertain, worrying over what the right thing is to do, being reluctant to join in some street dancing, not connecting to the nice man who offered to show her and her family his Lisboa. When the madcap taxi driver wants her to join him in a mini-marathon, she is reluctant, she fears failure, she wants to stick with her daughter.
For someone embarking on what looks like a hero’s journey, she spends a lot of time resisting the call – or going sightseeing. It’s as if Marlow took time off from seeking the Heart of Darkness to go on safari or to complain about poor service. We get caught up too much here in Canadian tourist life and visa problems when really we want to know how to clean a fish.
Still, there’s fado and saudade, the sad songs and the Portuguese nostalgia, the yearning for home and not knowing where that is, the sacredness of the fish you cook and eat, the tension of being the hyphen in Portuguese-Canadian.
And at the end what has she learned? That when she’s in Portugal she feels Canadian, but when she’s in Vancouver she feels Portuguese. Maybe we need to see more of her in Vancouver: does she bring her Portuguese ways home? Does she return to Portugal? She’s invited back for a reunion, but does she go?
Perhaps we expect too much of our heroes and their journeys. Do they really change us? Is there transformation and growth? Did Marlow grow? Does Esmeralda? Perhaps we are what we are, imprinted from birth. Esmeralda says she thinks being born in Portugal imprinted being Portuguese on her. And yet she is Canadian too. I was never one for surfing or thrill-seeking, she says, and she can’t be as carefree as the locals on a Portuguese beach, but at least she learns how to clean a fish.
Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (Heritage House, 2017), reviewed by Herbert Rosengarten. He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery, Remember, Remember (Bristol: UKA Press), was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. His latest book, Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories (London: MX Publishing, 2019), was reviewed in the BC Review by Patrick McDonagh. Originally from Montreal, Sheldon has a history degree from McGill University, a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and two degrees from the University of British Columbia: a PhD in English and a master’s degree in archival studies. Editor’s note: Sheldon Goldfarb has recently reviewed books by Bruce Whiteman & Mireille Silcoff, Nick Thran, Susan McIver, James Gifford, Alan Twigg, Yosef Wosk & Nachum Tim Gidal, and he has contributed a comedic poem, The Ramen, based on Poe’s “The Raven.”
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster