So Much Smoke I Elle Fournier I Antipodes

January 11, 2019

The official publication of the American Association of Australasian Literary Studies. 


A feast in the details

Felix Calvino. So Much Smoke. Arcadia: Victoria, 2016. 143 pp. A$29.95. ISBN:978- 1-925333-99-2

Elle Fournier
Washington State University

Cigarettes, cremation, and home cooking aptly engulf Felix Calvino’s short story collection So Much Smoke. The result is a swirl of elements, of fire, of sea, of chicken and onions, that gives the collection strength in feel despite its lack in form.

The Spanish-born author, now living in Australia, stays close to home with this collection, either revisiting small-town Spanish life or examining the lives of Spanish immigrants in Australia.
Like history, food also connects this family of stories. For readers with epicurean interests of their own, the detail that Calvino puts into relating food preparation is a delight, as in “The Road”: “There was hare stew for Sunday dinner. It was a heavy and long hare with thick gold and white fur. José had trapped it two days before and had marinated it with two bay leaves and the last of his garlic stock” (19).
Beyond the pleasure in the gastronomic details, food in this collection does a lot of heavy lifting, signaling home and connection. At moments of emotional intensity, characters head to the kitchen, making coffee, pulling beers out of the refrigerator, grilling steaks. A connection to Spain and its land is also played out through food, as characters pull ingredients from just outside their homes and consume such regional fare as jamón serrano (8) and aguardiente (9), each representing one of the few instances of Spanish language in the text.
Calvino also uses food as an opportunity to examine death and death’s role in life. In “The Hen,” the young protagonist reckons with the task of slaughtering a chicken for a family meal. This task comes at a time in which the eleven-year-old boy is “desperate to get out of short pants” (4). Like food, the theme of transition present in “The Hen” works its way through the entire collection; Calvino investigates the migration between childhood and adulthood, life and death, Spain and Australia.
The collection’s most memorable story, “The Smile,” is also the longest and follows the Spanish immigrant Jose after the loss of his wife, Consuela. Though told with sparse detail and a restrained plot—the act of refinishing a table carries the story through a great deal of the action—Jose’s quiet grief is haunting. The story builds slowly; however, it succeeds because the longer page count allows the reader to get acquainted with Calvino’s characters—on the whole, a reticent bunch.
Calvino’s collection works best when focusing on the sensory, when he builds a palpable ambiance. For example, a particularly short snapshot near the end of the collection, “Kneading the Dough,” stands out. Like “The Hen,” this story focuses on the relationship between a tween boy and his mother. “Kneading the Dough” adeptly uses microdetail and repetition to reflect the sense of stasis enveloping the time just before adulthood: “In the confined space of the stove oven, the fire, slow at first, is now a furious dance. The red and yellow tongues turn on themselves, embrace each other. He adds another bundle of dry hardwood and pine branches, then another, and another” (132).
The strength of this two-page story is that Calvino carves a path between adolescent angst and the process of preparing bread but does not insist on dragging the reader down that path with him. Too often writers underestimate the satisfaction for readers of sussing out these connections for themselves. Here Calvino leaves enough hints that readers are not floundering for an interpretation but also practices enough restraint so that they can feel clever for drawing a conclusion.
On the flip side, issues in this collection generally arise when Calvino slows down the narrative for the sake of explanation. In the age of Google, there is little need for explanatory footnotes, especially when presented in the dry, dictionary-esque fashion that Calvino does in this book. As a reader, when I am asked to arrest the narrative to glance toward the bottom of the page, I hope for a stylistic treat in return. Calvino does not deliver. However, the real problem is that for most readers, even those unfamiliar with Franco-era Spanish history, the explanation is unnecessary to understand the unfolding plot and character arcs.
In a similar vein, “The Dream Girl” is the least engrossing story in the collection because it is distractingly meta, with the protagonist’s interests and backgrounds all but cross-referencing the author’s bio page. “The Dream Girl” focuses a great deal on the protagonist’s growing love of reading and his writing aspirations. While relating this, Calvino does little to shake up the conventional artist’s journey narrative. If he moved away from this story of a shy, precocious child finding freedom through literature, Calvino’s use of biography would read as far less trite. However, “The Dream Girl” has the opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to the artist’s narrative with its focus on language; the Galician-speaking protagonist is forced to negotiate Spain’s desire to homogenize the country’s language. Unfortunately, the handling of the Galician language facet of the story is far too direct, contributing more to authorial intrusion than to a thought-provoking thread in the narrative.
In So Much Smoke, Calvino proves that he is capable of leaving room for reader interpretation. It is unfortunate that he gives in to the impulse to overexplain at the moments he does. With more restraint, stories of oppressive language policies and echoes of tyrannical regimes would be compelling and relevant. Instead, the departures from narrative mostly serve to distract from the more entertaining and engaging moments. ARTICLE