Antipodes (Brooklyn, New York)

July 17, 2010


Multicultural, pastoral tales hint at the unknown

Félix Calviño. A Hatful of Cherries

Steve Goerger

Salem, OR

Echoing the biography of its author, Félix Calviño’s A Hatful of Cherries is perhaps most notable for its intriguing juxtaposition of Spanish and Australian cultures. Of the sixteen short stories collected here, ten are set in Spain, where Calvino was raised and from which he fled military service during the deadly Spanish Civil War; six take place in Australia, where Calviño has lived since the 1960s. The majority of the Spanish stories chronicle the hardships and small joys of village life, while the Australian stories investigate the lives of lonely, immigrant men navigating unfamiliar terrain. While these lines of demarcation lead to obvious differences in content, the stories also have a vibrant through line constructed of the humanity and wisdom of the characters, and of Calviño himself.

The well-drawn characters and their relationships are the clear highlight of the collection. The Spanish stories are rich with familial love overcoming the bitter experience of life, such as in “The Swallows,” when a young boy is taught of the mystery and beauty of nature by his wise and kind-hearted grandfather.

Stories such as “An Old Sheep” and “Basilio” extend this love into the larger community, gracefully illustrating the mutual generosity necessary to rural survival, while “A Hatful of Cherries” and “Silvia” offer elegant reflections on the beauty and turmoil of romance. The Australian stories offer vivid portrayals of the immigrant experience and of mateship, as in the excellent “A New Place,” where a group of immigrant friends go out to a nightclub in search of female companionship, and the narrator catches a brief glimpse of true love, only to watch it vanish into the crowd.

Calviño brings a well-developed craft to the portrayal of these characters, their situations and inner lives. His style is gentle, full of respect for life’s mysteries, with phrase-making abilities that reveal the enigmas of existence concisely and profoundly. In “An Old Sheep,” four sentences describing a shepherd’s home summarize his life’s luck and misery completely: “The room was cold in winter and hot in summer. It was always dark. Tired twinkles of light came through the fissures in the roof tiles. A small window looked out into the trees”(33). In “A New Place,” the simple words “I can cook” (43) convey a lifetime of desire and uncertainty. “The stars are her eyes,” says Grandpa at the end of “The Swallows” (182), intimating to the young narrator all the magic of living things. Moments such as these abound throughout the collection, and elevate moments of dull living into transcendence.

At times, however, these moments can feel too few and far between in Calviño’s work. These are stories of reflection; narration is normally at a great remove from events, and exposition is given weight at the expense of scene. “Silvia” concerns a pregnancy creating love triangle between two male friends and the title character, with endless opportunities for languorous scenes which illustrate the emotional joys and conflicts of the situation. One paragraph describes Silvia as “seated in an easy chair in the living room against beautiful tapestries, the colours of which brought deep repose to the mind,” and notes that this is an occasion Alfredo “reminisced many years later” (158). While Alfredo’s memory does paint a lovely image, it also suggests the opportunity for a more fully realized scene, one which might bring readers into that living room, to experience its beauty without the mediation of Alfredo’s mind. Similarly, the story “Basilio”—one of the strongest pieces in the collection—brings home the deadly aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, but it does very little to recreate the atrocities of the war itself. Basilio reminisces about the number of dead and summarizes some of the killings, but never does he experience a flash back or some other trick of narration that might intensify the story’s sorrowful themes. “Ghosts on the Beach” draws in the reader because of its anomalous setting—the afterlife—but it fails to develop its most interesting theme that of romantic love between ghosts. The resolutions of many of the stories feel incomplete or unsatisfactory, unwilling to mine the characters’ lives for their most resonant and lasting legacies.

The finest of the stories are those which deliver a heightened sense of irony, proposing some unexpected twist in the beauty of life in villages, in new homelands, and elsewhere. “Winners and Losers,” the story of a lost wallet, is among the best in this regard. After the narrator loses his wallet, his mates at a local pub place bets on how much

of its monetary contents will return. Meanwhile, the narrator, interested in the stories of poor men, is taken on a tour of food missions in the area by his friend Henry. The story becomes an examination of the nature of luck and circumstance in the lives of men, buoyed by the narrator’s generous nature toward others. Just as he seems to have reconciled bad luck as a simple fact of an otherwise good life, his wallet turns up with a surprise of its own. “Basilio,” “Restless Hands,” and “Silvia” are other stories which resolve in a manner addressing life’s complexities, at home and abroad. Here Calviño’s well-crafted folk tales brush against the unexpected and the unusual, giving birth to masterful, illuminating art.

Goerger, Steve. Multicultural, pastoral tales hint at the unknown [Book review of Calvino, Felix. A Hatful of Cherries (2007).] [online]. Antipodes (Brooklyn, New York), v.23, no.2, Dec 2009: 218-219.

Multicultural, pastoral tales hint at the unknown [Book review of Calvino, Felix. A Hatful of Cherries (2007).]

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