Alfonso - Review / Harp

February 15, 2014


Grady Harp's review 

Cultural Heritage and Miscegenation

Félix Calvino knows the immigrant experience as well as anyone writing. His newest novel, ALFONSO, not only substantiates that his book of short stories, A HATFUL OF CHERRIES, suggested the arrival of an important new voice on the literary scene, it also proves that his brief ideas about finding one’s place in a new country can and have been successfully developed into a full fledged novel.
Calvino was born in Galicia and spent his childhood on a farm not unlike that of his main character the title. Under the reign of General Franco, Calvino fled to England to study and work and eventually migrated to Australia where he currently lives and writes his magical prose. And it is with that insight that Calvino writes about Alfonso, a Spaniard who has immigrated to Australia (Sydney) via stopovers in England and other entertainingly at times hilarious and at other times frightening places. Once in Australia he must learn a new language, work at any job available to immigrants whose language skills of the new home are nascent, make friends with both other people who are form Spain as immigrants and form other countries: Australia is as much a melting pot a s the USA!

But Alfonso is determined, moves form his meager ‘bed sitter’ to purchase a house that needs more than cosmetic repairs, discovers the behavior patterns of neighbors not used to immigrant status and cultures and customs, continues to seek the woman whom he can share his life, meets his dream, Nancy, who is Australian and takes trips to Europe, placing what Alfonso perceives is already an inherent distance between their lives. How Alfonso adjusts during the years in which this novel takes place (1962 to 1971) defines so much more about the immigrant experience and the effects of the Vietnam War and other world events on our transplanted Spanish Australian that many history books piled atop each other could.
Félix Calvino’s voice may be a gentle and quiet one, but it is all the more powerful for the caring way he imparts his story. He has created such poignant phrases as ‘Divorces and funerals are wives’ ultimate weddings’, but to give the reader a sample of his rather astonishingly vivid method of approaching his subject the following extract is a fine one to study:

‘The four walls he had washed and painted twice as a gesture of friendship would have captured, as a mirror would, his frustration at trying to sew on a button, or trying not to scorch a new shirt; his clumsy attempts at cooking dinner with half of the ingredients missing until he trained himself to write a shopping list before going shopping; his relentless learning and relearning of English words; his chores of washing, cleaning, daily bed-making, and weekly changing of the bed sheets. These same walls would have recorded his loneliness in daytime and sadness always at night. The narrow wardrobe, the Triumph stove, the couch, two wooden chairs, and the aluminum table with the green Formica top would have watched his character crossing from youth to man, although he could not identify the exact turning point. Perhaps the pieces came together like a jigsaw. He remembered feeling proud of doing his job well, of having the first thousand-dollar balance stamped in his ANZ Bank savings book. Above all, he had been deeply thankful for having escaped poverty, for being in control of his life, and for how good a life he had. And there was the vague beginning, and understanding, of the forming of his two selves – one made of past memories, the other of new dreams. Dreams had been good companions in the village and they remained so in Australia. Three of them had crystallized into purpose: the satisfactory command of the English language, the owning of a house, and the companionship of a woman. The first two were going well, he thought.’
This extraction from his novel, not unlike his short stories, shows the power in this writer’s mind and hands. He has arrived.

Grady Harp