Review - Social Alternatives

January 20, 2008

A Hatful of Cherries Short Stories by Félix Calvino. (2007). Kew VIC: Arcadia (an imprint Australian Scholarly Publishing). ISBN 978 1 74097 167 6

David Malouf's back cover notes feature three particularly apt adjectives to summarise this balanced collection from Felix Calvino: 'moving, humorous, strange'. It is the tension and movement between the humorous and the moving, within each tale and between separate stories that sustains the text as a complete work.

The oscillation between settings further develops this synchronicity. The stories move through a range of real and imagined spaces. There are Galician villages, set, variously but without date in the first half of the twentieth century. There are contemporary city scapes in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and even places of ghostly occupation. There is a contrast intimated between these worlds. The narration is often omniscient, collective in the stories of the past, set in the farming regions of the Spanish northwest coast. When first person is occasionally used it is usually through a voice remembering childhood reflecting with the insight of historical distance. But in the stories set in contemporary Australia first person narration is used, creating more individualised reflections. The work is not fragmented by the disparate settings: all the parts authentically reflect an archetypal Australian carrying the historical narratives of many places of origin.

The humour lies in the simple telling of characters and their perspectives and the irony this produces. In one story, a child narrator reflects simply and with out analysis on his Grandfather “Grandfather had become disillusioned with women when my Grandmother died young and without his consent” (Calvino, 2007: 42). In another the pastor rails from the pulpit at the unknown and unconfessed sinner who has got the teacher's servant 'in trouble', out of wedlock. The unknown male parishioner's sin is twofold. The first sin is production of the illegitimate foetus. The second and greater sin is the failure to reveal his singular culpability, thus casting guilt and suspicion over all men. One of the stories tells of the transition from smoker to ex-smoker with great wit. The ironies and privations of this contemporary Australian phenomenon are deftly explored.

Calvino's gift lies in the ability to catch a moment or a community completely. Many of the earlier stories in the sequence operate to build individual memories into a sense of a collective community. Time and environment are not separated from the connection with community. The seasons move and are made sense of through their varying impacts on old and young. It is only after this connectedness is established along side similarly convivial tales in contemporary settings that the reader, now warmed, is led through a series of deeply 'moving' stories of disconnection and threat.

The style is ever subtle and austere, in both the humorous and moving stories (many are both) and this lends aesthetic weight. There are a few stories set in the Spanish civil war and its devastating aftermath. Calvino demonstrates that civil war is that most uncivil of wars. War traditionally works by defamiliarising the combatants, and staging the conflict in special zones. Calvino reveals a war arena in which combatants are not clearly distinguished and where the everyday mixes with the sinister and threatening. One story at the centre of the work 'Basilio' delivers this mix of the everyday and of threat beautifully. It is a well crafted unravelling of a single day: unembellished descriptions of the daily actions of a delivery man mix with his own frequent and rustic ruminations on his life, hopes and surroundings. This patterning soon reveals a complex and warm character, of particular strengths and weaknesses. While the story is tragic it is full of hope and love.

All the stories are full of hope and love, even the ostensibly satirical tales, such as the one depicting the physically flawed men in their mid thirties, 'parents without partners'. These men vainly desire intimacy and inclusion in sophisticated night spots so pathos is suggested but it is interrupted by moments of beauty and hope. Again and again the ordinary is depicted in such a way as to glimpse moments of attainable epiphany such as in the personalised records of lost clothes from a metropolitan clothes line, an unexpectedly found wallet, or a child's response to a pocket knife.

The stories are subtle and recognise life is about paradox, complexity, the living of it not a stable moral. Some are purposively brief records of a meeting or a chance occurrence. This means endings are without clear answers, only partial answers and questions. This is refreshing and satisfying, propelling the reader into the next story in the collection. I eagerly await Calvino's next work.

Clare Archer-Lean

Social Alternatives Vol 26 No 4, 2007