So Much Smoke I Tim Bazzett I Rathole Books

January 13, 2017

Tim Bazzett


With his new collection of stories, SO MUCH SMOKE, Felix Calvino continues to chronicle the lives and journeys of Spanish emigrants to Australia, a task he began with the stories in his first book, A HATFUL OF CHERRIES, and continued in his exquisite novella, ALFONSO.

Calvino is himself such an emigrant, and the eleven stories here are about equally divided between stories of early childhood set in poor farming communities of Galicia, in northwest Spain, and more urban settings of Australia in the seventies and beyond. SO MUCH SMOKE seems, in some ways, to be more personal than the two earlier books. This is particularly evident in "The Dream Girl," a story that is set in Galicia, but also affords the reader a glimpse years into the future, when protagonist Gabriel has moved to Australia and made a new, successful life in business. His youthful dreams of teaching and writing stories have been given up or put 'on hold,' while the titular 'dream girl' has married, become a mother and a pharmacist. But there is much more to the story than this. In "The Dream Girl," Calvino pays tribute to Galician and Spanish writers he read in his youth, including them in two reading lists Gabriel is given by a teacher -

"One contains twenty titles by Galician authors; the other names over a hundred by Spanish authors. It begins with EL CANTAR DE MIO CID, DON QUIXOTE, LAZARILLO DE TORMES and ROMANCERO GITANO, iconic works of Spanish literature from the twelfth century, all the way to the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca."

The Galician writers are more obscure (at least to me). They include Rosalia de Castro, "the illegitimate child of an upper-class woman and a Catholic priest, who never acknowledged her." Gabriel finds that "The migrant's plight is a recurring theme in her work ... [and] having been a migrant for two-thirds of his life, he agrees with her insights." Two other Galician writers that ring true to Gabriel are Emilio Pardo Bazan and Ramon del Valle Inclan, the latter "considered by some critics to be the Spanish equivalent to James Joyce ..."

But perhaps equally interesting here is the frustration and disappointment that Gabriel [i.e. Calvino] felt at how hard it was for him to read the Galician texts, despite its being his native tongue, because the Franco government had forbade the teaching and even the speaking of such 'dialects,' to also include Basque, Catalan and others.

"Years later, as an adult, this disappointment will turn into anger towards those who deprive children of the right to learn to read and write in their mother tongue .. to Gabriel it will always be a crime ... [a language] preserves memories, legends, history."

"The Dream Girl" is perhaps the most personal of Calvino's stories, because in it he is able to express his love of literature, as well as how he came to be a writer. But the centerpiece here is probably the longest of the stories, "The Smile." It tells the story of a friendship between Jose and Fidel, both emigrants, and the simple lives they live in Sydney, where Jose is a hotel night clerk and Fidel is a street sweeper. Both Fidel and his wife, Consuelo, are physically homely - ugly even - people, but their love transforms them. So yes, there is a love story here. But there is also the theme of community and upward striving for a better life so common to most of  Calvino's emigrant stories set in Australia. Slowly, over a period of many months, Jose learns more and more of Fidel's story - how he met Consuelo back in Spain, how their courtship, how they came to Australia (as a part of Canberra's Spanish Migration Scheme and the Catholic Migration Committees). Their story unfolds gradually, in Calvino's trademark simple, detail-oriented style. Here's a sample -

"He washed his hands under the tap, rubbed salt and pepper on two large chickens and placed them in a baking dish, adding thin rashers of bacon on top. Waiting for the oven to heat, he filled a second baking dish with potatoes, carrots, capsicums and two small onions cut in half."

Reading this, I could not help but recall "Big Two-Hearted River," with its descriptions of Nick Adams making camp and preparing his meager meals in the Michigan north woods, and I wondered if Calvino knew that story, had been influenced by Hemingway. And yes, Calvino's writing is consistently Hemingway-esque. The subjects are different, but the stylistic similarities are unmistakable. Is it just smoke and mirrors? No, it's real. English may be Felix Calvino's third language, but you'd never know it from these stories. He is a meticulous writer at the top of his game. SO MUCH SMOKE displays so much talent. I continue to be amazed at the work of this man. Bravo, Felix. Very highly recommended.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER 
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