Review - The Barcelona Review

November 15, 2008

Felix Calvino was born and raised on a farm in Galicia, the green, northwest coast of Spain. After moving to England to escape military service under Franco, he migrated to Australia in the late 1960s where he resides today. His debut collection of stories is written in a beautiful English that holds the reader captive and gives much pleasure.
A Hatful of Cherries is comprised of 16 stories, mostly quite short, with a few set in Australia, but the majority set in his native Galicia, back in the time just after the Civil War, which still looms in the collective mind of its inhabitants. Life is hard, food is scarce, and people work their farms as best they can. In a simple, but powerful prose, Calvino grabs the reader from the first sentence and never lets go. There is not a dull or weak story to be found; each is a little gem, easily transporting the reader from the mountains of post-civil war Galicia to a nightclub in contemporary Newport Beach, Australia, and other points down under.
In the longest piece, “Basilio,” we find the happily married Basilio—a somewhat withdrawn man due to his having a bit of a stammer and a withered arm—who began driving a pick-up and delivery van for the widow Perez just after the Civil War when “there were rumors that the dense and darkly wooded valley surrounding the road was a hiding place for criminals and bandits, but he never saw any.” We follow Basilio on one long day’s round of pick ups and deliveries, in which Calvino captures, through Basilio’s sensitive eye, the rough beauty of the country along with memorable sketches of the Galicians with whom he often interacts as well as his reflections on the war itself. Apart from the commonplace, the day will be full of surprises.
In “The Pocketknife” a man is reminded of childhood memories as he looks at a window display of pocketknives:

The law governing pocketknives was a source of argument among the men, or rather, the beginning of many arguments. The law regulated blade size, prohibited the aid of springs to open the blade, required the blade to fold into the handle, and so on . . . The law came into force after the war. People were to disarm, and stay disarmed. These were the Generalissimo’s wishes. I remember the Generalissimo. I saw him every day in a portrait hanging behind the teacher’s desk. I don’t remember the war. But I remember the people saying it was a bad war . .
“An Old Sheep” follows the son of a respected old sheep herder, parents now dead, who falls into dissolute ways, leaving the locals at odds as to how to deal with him; while “The Swallows” is a simple tale of a cuckoo who ends up in a swallows’ nest in a barn and shows how the household at the farm follows the bird’s plight.

The ever so delightful “A Hatful of Cherries” portrays a Galician couple who take in a young girl to help with the housekeeping, and follows their lives as they become curiously entwined, with the townspeople watching closely and with suspicion; while “Silvia” follows two Galician gentlemen with families who share a mistress until complications arise which must be resolved. We are reminded in this story and others of the strict ethical code of the community that can be quick to condemn, but is not heartless. They are a stalwart people, slightly backward from our 21st-century perspective perhaps, but with an inner strength and grit, and the ability to move with the rhythm of the land and the appreciation of simple pleasures.
As for Australia, particularly moving is the story of a woman from Galicia who, through a long correspondence with a fellow Galician now farming in Australia, has taken the bold step of flying to that far away country to become his bride. Our narrator is the intermediary who greets her at the airport before she boards a second plane to her destination where things are not exactly what she had expected. In another of the Australian stories, we find a man running from love, and in yet another we find a group of middle-aged men looking for wives at the city’s new hot spot.
There is a gentle, quiet passion in all of these stories; every emotion, every word spoken runs true; it never once sinks into sentimentalism yet we are moved by the characters. The author’s humanity shines through, and the stories linger long after the final page. I hope to read more. J.A.

In this issue, see A Hatful of Cherries and Detour