Alfonso I Jessica Foster I Review

's review
Jan 20, 15

I met Félix Calvino only yesterday by chance in the library and he was so generous as to give me a copy of his lovely book and sign it. It is always delightful to receive a book, better still when the book in question is so wise and addictive to read.

Calvino’s writing is precise. Nothing is out of place. But it is beautiful. I came back to the library today and sat down and read the whole thing, forgetting lunch. If only I had known who I had really met when I ran into Calvino!

This succinct story is about Alfonso, a Spanish migrant to Australia in the 60s/early 70s, and his determination to succeed in this country. He succeeds in almost every sense. But he is lonely, he wants a family and he feels he is stuck between two worlds, two ways of thinking. The thing is, Alfonso never really has to ‘assimilate’, there is so much Spanish culture right in Sydney he could go on and never really learn English properly – he could surround himself by Spanish entirely. He works in construction and like his fellow migrant colleagues, he could partake in the misogynistic attitude and suspicion of women and either never get married or marry a ‘submissive’ Spanish girl, just happy just to have running hot and cold water. Australian women seem to want it all, too much. His friend Raul is suspicious of Australian women and soon Alfonso gives in to this suspicion, and superstition - he grew up surrounded by superstition.

But what is so admirable about Alfonso is that he wants more, he knows he needs more, something more soulful and seeks it. He can’t be silent, he learns English masterfully. And he doesn't want to sit keeping his prosperity to himself, his heart beats and he longs for all that a woman can provide. This is such a beautiful story about finding a place, in a new country and with oneself.

Australia is very present in this novel, from the yearning to succeed in material ways – the Australian dream as it were to build a home from hard work and renovation to those familiar Sydney streets, the barbeque and compulsory beer and chops with friends and the housewarming that’s a little past its due date! And there is a lovely hum to the prose, it is meditative, the walking to work, the train, reaching for bread and cheese washed down with wine. It’s as reliable and punctuating as a smoker leaving the table to satisfy their latest craving. It’s a short spell and it’s beautiful.

Above all, it’s a relevant story, this was a time when Australia really grew and this idea of multiculturalism took hold. My own mother came to Australia from India and in Sydney sought company mostly with fellow Indians. Finally she married an Australian but I’m not sure that she made the same leap as Alfonso. She lost her Hindi language and never properly mastered the English one. Her Indian friends moved on but she never replaced them with Australian ones. Growing up, it felt I was a stranger to both cultures; never able to enjoy Aussie culture or play with other kids but I was also a big-boned foreigner to my Indian family. So there has been a lot of wishing that mum had done both, embraced English and taught me Hindi - but I can’t exactly understand what it’s like to come so far, to face the struggles of working in another country, knowing you just escaped poverty. No, I can’t exactly complain having grown up here, knowing nothing else. Calvino has given me wonderful insight.
I will treasure the kind gift, thank you.

Jessica Foster rated it 5 of 5 stars