ResearchGate I So Much Smoke

April 20, 2020

J. Miguel Alonso-Giráldez 

‘So Much Smoke’: La experiencia migratoria de Félix Calvino a través de la nostalgia autobiográfica y la elaboración literaria de la vida cotidiana.

Goodbye 2019

December 31, 2019

Dear Friends,
It’s time to say, “Goodbye, 2019!”
It was a good year for reading, rereading mostly, and I would like to share with you some lines that remain clear in my head:
“Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard . . . .
 —Virginia Woof, The Mark on the Wall
"Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories, when heard, stop the unilinear flow of time."
 —John Berger, What Time Is It?
Best wishes for 2020

So Much Smoke I Magdalena Ball I Compulsive Reader

February 24, 2019

So Much Smoke
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The short stories that make up Felix Calvino’s book So Much Smoke are oddly familiar. Perhaps there is something universal in the migrant experience that is transmitted through his delicate prose. Perhaps it’s because of the distinctive coupling of nostalgia and immediacy that make up these dreamlike stories. The settings are charged with tenderness and a sense of loss, even when action is present tense.
The stories are mostly very short, with the exception of “The Smile”, which is almost a novella in length. In nearly all of these stories, the conflict occurs in the spaces between action – in dreams, in prophesy, in a growing self-awareness, and in memory. In the first story, a young girl’s dreams are prophetic. Her mother worries she will be called names at school. Though the story has a hint of a dark edge to it, it pivots on moments of tenderness that seem to exist in an alternate space. In another story, a boy, the narrator, agrees to kill a hen for his mother, but the job is harder than it looks. When the boy uses a shotgun rather than a knife to do the dirty work, his maturity is called into question. In “What Do You Know About Your Friends”, the family home is left to two brothers after a father dies intestate. This is one of many stories about death and inheritance. The brothers have different ideas about how to manage the home and one is left struggling to manage his place on his own. In the title piece, a forty-year old man inherits the family home on his mother’s death, but as the will states that he must take the house unencumbered he has to pay bills he can’t afford. In each of these stories, there is a strong visual impressions—almost like a painting—that create the tension. The activity almost feels beside the point against these visuals.  Each scene is set up in careful detail like a tableau:
The early morning autumn sky was grey as he stood and listened to the silence. At the far end of the yard, under the mango tree, the neighbour’s black and white cat watched intently for birds. (“The Smile”)
The feeling created is one of heaviness: an inertia that the characters have to struggle against. There is politics, but it is subtle. We know that Franco’s Spain is both home in the Ithaca sense – beautiful in memory, but also the place that must be escaped. Poverty, unemployment, and fear provide the backdrop. It has already been left. Sydney too, the destination, becomes defamiliarised. The protagonists are always struggling with identity; always outsiders marked by mannerism, clothing, accent. These characters tend to be caught – the role of migrant becoming a permanent state of being rather than a transitory one. It’s an uncomfortable space, where the conflict is not caused by action but by a struggle for meaning – a coming into being that never quite actualises. The plight of the migrant is a recurrent theme in all of these stories, and the ‘migratory’ process is not always a motion from place to place but also occurs through time and memory and through linguistic process, language becoming a metaphor for the self. In “The Dream Girl”, Gabriel works hard to read and write in his native Galician, discovering the work of Rosalía de Castro, a Galician author, and finds some meaning in the discovery of his transition:
Adjustment is a complex subject. Many of them [Galician migrants] have managed a measure of success, but the other life, the one up to the point of departure, is always etched in their memories. No matter how well integrated they are in the adoped society, each of them has his or her concealed hinterland. (121).
Though the stories are very much in the literary realist tradition – much of the plots centre around everyday activities, depicted without overt artifice, there is an air of magic that pervades the work. Calvino handles it very subtly, rooting the magic in natural occurrences like sleepwalking, superstition, fever, premonitions, and grief. Always there’s a sense that the world is not quite fixed and that what we’re experiencing is illusory (so much smoke), and charged by scars, memories, hunger, and all that we’ve lost. The stories that make up So Much Smoke are powerful, not so much because of what happens, but because of the way they hint at how much lurks below the surface. Though the work is rooted in the settings that Calvino creates so well, there is always a self-referential modernism that keeps pushing against a linguistic otherness: the unsettling nature of language and the shock of transition. So Much Smoke is a nuanced collection, full of place, space, and subtle epiphany.

So Much Smoke I Elle Fournier I Antipodes

January 11, 2019

The official publication of the American Association of Australasian Literary Studies. 


A feast in the details

Felix Calvino. So Much Smoke. Arcadia: Victoria, 2016. 143 pp. A$29.95. ISBN:978- 1-925333-99-2

Elle Fournier
Washington State University

Cigarettes, cremation, and home cooking aptly engulf Felix Calvino’s short story collection So Much Smoke. The result is a swirl of elements, of fire, of sea, of chicken and onions, that gives the collection strength in feel despite its lack in form.

The Spanish-born author, now living in Australia, stays close to home with this collection, either revisiting small-town Spanish life or examining the lives of Spanish immigrants in Australia.
Like history, food also connects this family of stories. For readers with epicurean interests of their own, the detail that Calvino puts into relating food preparation is a delight, as in “The Road”: “There was hare stew for Sunday dinner. It was a heavy and long hare with thick gold and white fur. José had trapped it two days before and had marinated it with two bay leaves and the last of his garlic stock” (19).
Beyond the pleasure in the gastronomic details, food in this collection does a lot of heavy lifting, signaling home and connection. At moments of emotional intensity, characters head to the kitchen, making coffee, pulling beers out of the refrigerator, grilling steaks. A connection to Spain and its land is also played out through food, as characters pull ingredients from just outside their homes and consume such regional fare as jamón serrano (8) and aguardiente (9), each representing one of the few instances of Spanish language in the text.
Calvino also uses food as an opportunity to examine death and death’s role in life. In “The Hen,” the young protagonist reckons with the task of slaughtering a chicken for a family meal. This task comes at a time in which the eleven-year-old boy is “desperate to get out of short pants” (4). Like food, the theme of transition present in “The Hen” works its way through the entire collection; Calvino investigates the migration between childhood and adulthood, life and death, Spain and Australia.
The collection’s most memorable story, “The Smile,” is also the longest and follows the Spanish immigrant Jose after the loss of his wife, Consuela. Though told with sparse detail and a restrained plot—the act of refinishing a table carries the story through a great deal of the action—Jose’s quiet grief is haunting. The story builds slowly; however, it succeeds because the longer page count allows the reader to get acquainted with Calvino’s characters—on the whole, a reticent bunch.
Calvino’s collection works best when focusing on the sensory, when he builds a palpable ambiance. For example, a particularly short snapshot near the end of the collection, “Kneading the Dough,” stands out. Like “The Hen,” this story focuses on the relationship between a tween boy and his mother. “Kneading the Dough” adeptly uses microdetail and repetition to reflect the sense of stasis enveloping the time just before adulthood: “In the confined space of the stove oven, the fire, slow at first, is now a furious dance. The red and yellow tongues turn on themselves, embrace each other. He adds another bundle of dry hardwood and pine branches, then another, and another” (132).
The strength of this two-page story is that Calvino carves a path between adolescent angst and the process of preparing bread but does not insist on dragging the reader down that path with him. Too often writers underestimate the satisfaction for readers of sussing out these connections for themselves. Here Calvino leaves enough hints that readers are not floundering for an interpretation but also practices enough restraint so that they can feel clever for drawing a conclusion.
On the flip side, issues in this collection generally arise when Calvino slows down the narrative for the sake of explanation. In the age of Google, there is little need for explanatory footnotes, especially when presented in the dry, dictionary-esque fashion that Calvino does in this book. As a reader, when I am asked to arrest the narrative to glance toward the bottom of the page, I hope for a stylistic treat in return. Calvino does not deliver. However, the real problem is that for most readers, even those unfamiliar with Franco-era Spanish history, the explanation is unnecessary to understand the unfolding plot and character arcs.
In a similar vein, “The Dream Girl” is the least engrossing story in the collection because it is distractingly meta, with the protagonist’s interests and backgrounds all but cross-referencing the author’s bio page. “The Dream Girl” focuses a great deal on the protagonist’s growing love of reading and his writing aspirations. While relating this, Calvino does little to shake up the conventional artist’s journey narrative. If he moved away from this story of a shy, precocious child finding freedom through literature, Calvino’s use of biography would read as far less trite. However, “The Dream Girl” has the opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to the artist’s narrative with its focus on language; the Galician-speaking protagonist is forced to negotiate Spain’s desire to homogenize the country’s language. Unfortunately, the handling of the Galician language facet of the story is far too direct, contributing more to authorial intrusion than to a thought-provoking thread in the narrative.
In So Much Smoke, Calvino proves that he is capable of leaving room for reader interpretation. It is unfortunate that he gives in to the impulse to overexplain at the moments he does. With more restraint, stories of oppressive language policies and echoes of tyrannical regimes would be compelling and relevant. Instead, the departures from narrative mostly serve to distract from the more entertaining and engaging moments. ARTICLE

The New York Times

August 29, 2018

My recent appearance in The New York Times es

La literatura hispanoamericana que se escribe en inglés – Español

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“Nómadas posnacionales, en los viajes, en las lecturas, en la gestión y en la vida profesional los escritores de origen hispano están en contacto constante con esa otra lengua”.
El fenómeno no solo afecta a la relación de América Latina con Estados Unidos. Félix Calvino, de origen gallego, emigró a Australia en los años sesenta y es ahora un escritor australiano con tres libros publicados, reconocido por la academia y por la crítica.

So Much Smoke I Antípodas XXVIII

August 29, 2018

So Much Smoke I Kathryn Hummel I Verity La

October 28, 2017

An Absence of Noise: Stephanie Buckle’s Habits of Silence and 
Félix Calvino’s So Much Smoke

Review by Kathryn Hummel
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

A land as vast as Australia is well-suited to capturing through snapshots, for viewing separately or stitched together in a panorama. In many ways the snapshots’ literary equivalent, works of Australian short fiction, are created regularly and convincingly: idiosyncratic of frame but requiring no great effort to locate them in the landscape from which they derive. Recent collections, Habits of Silence by Stephanie Buckle and So Much Smoke by Félix Calvino, have been put together with a similar assuredness and piercing eye for capture, particularly concerning narratives marginal to the mainstream.

An overwhelming weight could lie upon the whole mechanism 
of speech,from the thoughts of what you would say, which 
one by one are relentlessly rejected; to the courage 
to speak them, which is consumed by the bile swilling 
in your stomach; to the cringing, self-defeating apathy of
the tongue that would have to form the words. Silence is safe. 

Silence commits to nothing.
Far easier to be silent than to speak.

(‘The Silence’ p64)

Throughout Habits of Silence, Stephanie Buckle shows skill in examining the absence of noise from various angles, as if it were a clear rather than cloudy proposition. In ‘Material Remains’, silence becomes a Millennial tragedy, observed as texting and social media browsing and distilled as isolation, a lack of intimacy and trust between a grieving teenager and his mother: ‘I’m sorry I’m upsetting her but she’ll get over it, like she’s got over Scott. I can’t deal with her. I can’t help her. I just want to be left alone’ (p33).
Buckle’s tone, bending through various characters and their narratives, is sharply contemporary and as bleakly recognisable as any suburban backyard. ‘Lillian and Meredith’ charts the romantic fascination Lillian, in residence at an aged care community, develops for newcomer Meredith. Their separation isn’t as surprising as sadly inevitable, initiated by carers and their institutional discourse: ‘Anyway, this is just the icing on the cake. She’s very inappropriate and disinhibited around Meredith, it’s a really unhealthy relationship and it’s upsetting the other residents’.(p15) Under the cover of silence, Buckle articulates the act of feeling as primary and the consequences of reality as secondary, although the stories she tells are far from fantasy. Frequently addressing the politics, economics and ethics of aged and mental health care facilities and the truncated emotional and erotic experiences of their residents, Buckle erects a black mirror to reflect the socio-political climate of their composition. Her writing evokes elements of Sonya Hartnett’s work, without the gothic tones: even with occasional lapses into self-consciousness, Buckle’s exploration is very real and just as frightening. In ‘Us and Them’, a mental health facility doesn’t have the resources for intensive counselling required by a resident; in ‘Frederick’, the need for psychiatric attention does not come from patient to carer but from one carer to another.
With such adherence to reality beyond the page, Buckle’s careful language often drops below pared-down. In some stories, as in ‘The Silence’, which dwells on the relationship between two elderly brothers, the understatement becomes almost abstract, lessening the emotional draw. The final image of George looking ‘down at his beer, turning the can slowly in his hand’ as silence ‘settle[s] around them’ (p79) could perhaps indicate the futility of trying to break longstanding silences, but doesn’t break through the surface of the characters’ suspension. At other times, Buckle supplies some excellent visual sketches: ‘…another glance, almost too quick to spot, slides off me’ (‘A Lovely Afternoon’ p83). The dialogue between Buckle’s characters is at times uneven — unexciting between Steve and Emma in ‘Choices’ and the hikers in ‘The Man on the Path’, but well-observed and paced between allies Jeannie and Zoe in ‘A Lovely Afternoon’:

‘Shelley’s always getting me into trouble,’ Zoe says. ‘It’s not fair.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ I say.
‘My friend Lauren gave me a book, and Shelley can’t even read yet but she said we had to share it.’
‘Perhaps she’s jealous because she didn’t get anything,’ I offer.
‘Even if she had, she still would’ve wanted my book.’
When some people think you’ve got something you shouldn’t have, I want to say, they’ve just got to try and spoil it for you. (p84)

The effect created by the stories in Habits of Silence is cumulative, its richness coming across in the details of dogged attempts to find value in desolation and loneliness (‘Sex and Money’); the longing for intimacy in any form (‘Us and Them’), and the silent tragedy of human beings going about their rigidly patterned lives (‘Fifty Years’).

Félix Calvino’s So Much Smoke is crisply blurbed, setting up readers to expect semi-autobiographical stories from the Galicia region of Spain and migration to Australia around the 1970–80s. While the influence of journeys pulses evenly through the collection, Calvino is expressively concerned with ritual, some of which bind his characters to their origins, others signifying their physical and mental advancement in the world. In ‘They Are Only Dreams’ and ‘The Hen’, the rites are of passage, with children coming into, or attempting to come into, their identities as mature beings; while ‘Valley of the Butterflies’ charts Julián’s entry into a darker adulthood suggestive of manipulation and conscious harm. The unexpected confidence between Pascual and the narrator in ‘What Do You Know About Your Friends?’ is prompted by a ritual formed in a new setting:

Half a dozen of us, all in our mid-twenties and all with no more than three years in Australia, were in the habit of dropping into the pub late on Saturday afternoon for a few beers and a chat on the way to our girlfriends, dinner, or just a night on the town. (p11)

The preparation and sharing of meals is described as an integral part of domestic life regardless of the degree of happiness within the home: ‘The Smile’ depicts a lunch gathering where guests are lulled into silence by Consuelo’s nostalgia-inducing home cooking, as well as a comfort meal of chicken and potatoes following her death. Within Calvino’s wide exploration of ritual, silence occasionally features: in stories of migration, where present dwelling on past lives is regarded as a dangerous pastime, silence is a rite of survival. Silence is also politicised through Gabriel in ‘The Dream Girl’, who reflects on the choice of language as an expression of cultural freedom:

What right has a government to subordinate—in the long run to murder—one language that is the property of all to replace it with another language in the quest for personal and nationalistic glory? (p120)

With So Much Smoke, as with Habits of Silence, it is worthwhile to ask whose voice is, in general, quietened — similarly to Buckle, Calvino articulates the narratives of the lesser-heard. The characters he identifies as migrants are shown dealing with implications of difference and the tension between their origins and present locations. Pascual’s sharing of a family tragedy with a fellow migrant is seen as ‘a flaw in the armour of his carefree mask’ behind which, in the narrator’s opinion, painful secrets should remain (p15); elsewhere, a group of friends reflects on ‘the life they had left behind and what they missed most as migrants’ (p52), thereby reducing their feelings of isolation. Told in implicit retrospect and with a sincere lack of ironic reference to contemporary immigration policy, Calvino’s stories of migration to Australia depict a Golden Age of this iconically hospitable and tolerant land: Fidel remarks that ‘in Sydney, we had discovered peace and joy and self-reliance. We were living our lives. The living like wounded animals searching for a place to hide was over’ (p104). With the same lack of irony, Calvino emphasises the fabled virtues of family, education, hard work and fidelity when, for example, the uncomplaining José is rewarded with riches at the conclusion of ‘The Road’. Given a non-laying chicken to slaughter, the boy in ‘The Hen’ is told by his mother, ‘Make it quickly so she does not suffer…’ (p5); while the remembered recognition of his parents’ ‘rituals of love across the kitchen table’ partially redeem the seedy John Benson of the eponymous story (p33).These details, sanguine and unsentimental, have the effect of illuminating a world beyond this variegated, rarely meritorious reality: within So Much Smoke, as it should be outside the text, migrants retain their humanity, education is a dignified goal, and culture and memories are treasured and preserved.

Keeping the reader engaged can be challenging for short fiction collections with multiple narrative trajectories and emotional pitches. Calvino’s collection could benefit from greater tautness, particularly in the lengthy central narrative ‘The Smile’, which includes an extended, dreamlike account of Fidel and Consuelo’s backstory. At other times, the dialogue is blurred by a similarly surreal tone that’s often formal, rather like a stilted translation:

‘Where does that broadcast come from?’ José asked.
‘The radio is Fidel’s baby,’ Consuelo replied. ‘Hasn’t he shown it to you yet?’

(‘The Smile’ p83)

In the dialogue-driven ‘They Are Only Dreams’, the same technique sets a portentous tone, highlighting the threat that the anonymous girl’s augury poses to peaceful village life. ‘So Much Smoke’ is murky in emotion and writing — ‘an incestuous relationship between lantana and passionfruit vines’ (p29) — and strewn with language (‘porch’, ‘mailbox’ and ‘apartments’) that seems too modern to be a deliberate contrast against the story’s implied retro setting. Quite possibly it is the nostalgic tint in Calvino’s writing that provokes a comparison to bygone writers like Ernest Hemingway. Calvino is similarly lean, and frequently elegant, in his powers of description: ‘After the leaves turned gold, they tended to the corn and the potatoes and the wood for winter’ (p17). So Much Smoke is noticeably male-focused, with attention given to inter-generational relationships and friendships between men; female characters are present but lacking somewhat in dimension.

While Buckle engages with and minutely examines reality to the edgy benefit of her work, Calvino is more mellow and reserved without being detached from reality: both occupy places of instantaneous belonging in the current literary landscape, fulfilling a need to have short fiction emit starker and softer lights by turns. Habits of Silence and So Much Smoke attest to the valiance of short fiction of and in contemporary Australia, and to the intrigue of the images captured by their authors. 
Kathryn Hummel is a writer, researcher and poet: the author of Poems from Here, The Bangalore Setand The Body That Holds. Her new media/poetry, non-fiction, fiction, photography and scholarly research has been published and presented worldwide (Meanjin, Cordite, Rabbit, The Letters Page, Prelude, PopMatters, Gulf Times, Himal Southasian), and recognised with a Pushcart Prize nomination and the Dorothy Porter Prize at the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards. Kathryn holds a PhD for studies in narrative ethnography and lives intermittently in South Asia. Her activities can be tracked @