Alfonso I Jennifer Popa I Antipodes

November 30, 2016

  In the quiet company of a dreamer

Jennifer Popa
Austin, Texas.

Often the novice writer is told that her characters need to have desires, wants, obsessions. While it seems a rather obvious statement, the question “What does this character want?” can summon a cringe from the writer. Matters such as plot, dialogue, or structure—these are manageable craft points, in that they are sometimes easier to pin down, but succinctly describing the innermost desires of a human proves a bit unwieldy. There is something inherently personal and loaded in the question, especially when asked of the writer herself, who is both attempting to depict it and also the inventor of said desire. Even in our own lives, it is difficult to say precisely what we want, at least not plainly or without qualifiers, and if we can identify it, we are not always right. Yet Félix Calvino navigates this question with ease in his slender novel Alfonso, as his title character’s desires are palpable; each page is saturated with his wish for connection. This is possibly because the character’s life parallels the author’s own. Alfonso’s sense of longing is a want so unmistakable, so tangible on the page, that the reader inevitably inherits its burden.

The book opens on Alfonso walking home from his construction job, as he experiences the quiet yearning upon seeing the doppelgänger of a girl from his village. He remembers the village girl at their first communion “dressed in white and looking more angel than girl” (3). He decides he must meet the replica girl and devises plans to encounter her again at the bus stop.

Alfonso’s world is one of duality. There is a double consciousness as he oscillates between replication and reinvention, between his Spanishness and his Australianness. There is a split in his person at the moment he leaves Spain, when his two discernible selves take shape: the one from before and the other who looks toward a bright though elusive future. Still, he remains hopeful that his turn will come. Although he has escaped poverty—an achievement that serves as the springboard for all his good fortune—in Australia he has stayed within the safety of his Spanish bubble. If he wanted, he could lead a life with minimal assimilation among a community of immigrants, but mostly Alfonso’s world is one of loneliness. In his kitchen, he dances with a spatula and a glass of wine, pretending that he is instead dancing with a beautiful woman. He befriends a neighborhood tomcat, which he names Guapo, but even the cat remains aloof: “He also concluded reluctantly that in Guapo’s heart, there was limited space for him” (43). As he restores his row house, he talks to the disembodied voice of a woman, who is part ghostly companion, part invention, part hallucination. The woman’s voice is complimentary, though they sometimes quarrel about his design choices. There is an inevitable claustrophobia to his routine:

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. (33)

For the reader, the tangible objects in Alfonso’s home take center stage: the carrots and potatoes he is cooking for dinner, the cabinets he restores, and the telephone that does not ring. They only fade to the background when Alfonso retreats to memory to reimagine the details of an encounter with a woman. The care he takes in constructing a life that would welcome a companion and these visions of companionship are so earnest. Yet even when his dream woman arrives in the form of the beautiful Australian Nancy, he is not entirely sure what to do. Sometimes his naiveté trumps his desires, just as his loneliness can be at times willful.

Alfonso’s immigrant experience is deceptively simple. Very little happens in the span of these 117 pages, but there is an economy in Calvino’s narrative that allows us to fully engage with Alfonso. The rhythm of his solitary routine renders an agreeable hum on the page, in part because Alfonso is quite likable as characters go. This is not to say that he is not fallible but that he is human, and there is a universal familiarity in his anxieties and dreams. One cannot help but admire his deliberate efforts: when he is rebuffed by the replica girl, he sets out to learn English through course work, becoming a member of the library and reading his Reader’s Digest subscription. After years as a “bed-sitter,” he buys a dilapidated house and restores it faithfully every day for three years; there is a tenderness in his dismissing his male friends who vilify women. Quite simply, I enjoy his company, and there is a comfort in occupying his headspace. While the immigrant experience might be foreign for the reader, Alfonso teaches us something about the ways in which we live, in particular about the moments when we might feel like strangers to our own lives.

Félix Calvino, Alfonso
Author(s): Jennifer Popa
Source: Antipodes, Vol. 30, No. 1 (June 2016), pp. 231-233
Published by: Wayne State University Press

 Félix Calvino. Alfonso. Melbourne:
Arcadia, 2013. 117 pp. A$22.95. ISBN: