Alfonso - Review I Holland

May, 2014

Félix Calvino’s short novel tells the story of a young man who moves to Australia to escape Franco’s Spain. The strange thing about the book (given that its author has spent so long in Australia) is how unlike contemporary Australian literature it is. David Malouf has championed Calvino, but then there has always been something essentially Mediterranean about the author of Ransom. Flaubert was uncompromising in his belief that the author’s opinions and even ideas should remain absent from a work of literary art. If the French master thought the novel of ideas was a degraded thing, what would he have thought of the Australian ‘novel of issues’, the books (we all know them) that might have been written off the back of an episode of Q&A. Alfonso bolsters no Australian cultural myths, nor does it succumb to the equally tiresome genre that is ‘myth debunking’.

Calvino never reveals himself to be so much a writer of foreign sensibilities as in his concern with Australia rather than Australianness. Alfonso is a work of art rather than of ideology. Its subjects are homelessness and belonging, love and estrangement. The lines with which Calvino sketches his habitually, even wilfully lonely immigrant man and his Australian romantic interest, Nancy, are as broad and hard as those in Goya’s etchings, yet there is a quiet quality about the book, and in the spaces between the words you feel the presence of deep running waters. Says the principal character, ‘Beyond the plane was the universe itself, nicely lit by uncountable stars for which, like his feelings, he had no names.’

Calvino’s book paints rather than explains. It has nothing to instruct you in. Like all true art, it invites you into an experience, one well worthwhile.