Gutter 23 I Knick-Knacks

March 16, 2021



Gutter 23, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 21-25,

Félix Calvino


A few days after Carlo’s birthday a knick-knacks vendor arrives in the village. His kind, along with tinkers, are regular visitors during the spring and summer months. They supply practical items, and fantasy ones such as figurines of meigas. They break the village tedium: children drop their games and are the first to gather around the visitor. Girls and young women pause in their chores, consult the mirror, and after a few strokes of the comb, they too are on their way.

The collective reaction is no different this time, but the knick-knacks vendor is: he gives sweets to the first children he meets on his arrival and promises them more after they spread the news of the great bargains on offer. He wears a pale green corduroy suit, and a General Franco moustache. He exudes trust and rectitude as opposed to the charlatans the villagers are used too. Even his mule has a shiny coat and its apparel is of quality leather.

He settles in the village square. On a low trestle, covered with dark green velvet cloth, the display of rings, bracelets, sunglasses, gold and silver chains, glitter in the afternoon sun and stir the fantasies of young and the old alike. In the religious section, a painted sign affirms the crucifix and rosaries as made of timber from the Holy Land and blessed by the Holy Father in Rome. On display is also black silk fabric to make women’s scarves, a wide range of sewing thread in various colours and thickness, lace edging, needles and thimbles, together with a roll of light blue cloth for men’s suits. ‘Cashmere of the highest quality’ reads the sign, in italic letters.

Carlos gazes over the merchandise. The roll of blue cloth catches his attention. In it he sees the opportunity for his most wanted first long, going-out trousers and he hurries back home.

His mother who is in the kitchen about to make cottage cheese listens to him, then says,

‘There is nothing to be gained in dealing with knick-knacks vendors.’

‘You promised I would have it for my 15th birthday.’

‘And you will. I never break a promise. I wish you did the same.’

‘You could at least have a look at it.’

She gazes at him for a long moment, shakes her head, and takes off her ash coloured apron.


At the square she touches and feels the cloth between her thumb and index twice, and a third time.

‘And the price?’ she asks.

‘Two thousand pesetas,’ the vendor replies.

She smiles and starts for home. Carlos follows her.

‘Mum I like it,’ he implores.

‘The man will not leave for a while, please calm down,’ she says.

Back at the house she searches for her husband, finds him in the barn and speaks to him close and quietly. Carlos waits outside the barn door. When he hears his father say ‘the best price you can,’ he hurries to the square just in case the knick-knacks vendor decides to leave or someone else buys the material. Although the chances of this happening are remote, there is nowhere else he wishes to be.

She takes her time. Carlos begins to doubt that he heard his father’s consent back in the barn. On her return she buys some coloured threads and safety pins, and then she joins some neighbours a short distance away talking about lettuce seeding and the right moon cycles for planting turnips. From her market days in town, Carlos is familiar with her buying and selling techniques in which time and indifference play a part, and he knows he has just to wait.


‘About the cloth,’ she says to the knick-knacks vendor a short time later.

‘Cashmere of the highest quality, Señora.’

They haggle. They come to an impasse. She extracts a Pope’s blessed crucifix and the deal is completed.

The following day, Vidal, the village tailor, takes Carlos’ measurements. A week passes before the first fitting. The second fitting takes place almost overnight.


One Sunday afternoon in early May, Carlos sets out with five other single neighbours for an evening dance at a village about two hours’ walking distance from theirs. He wears the new suit. Shirt, socks, shoes, tie and belt are also new.

It is a perfect late spring with clear blue sky, but for a mountain of dark and motionless clouds in the far west. There is birdsong in the trees and excitement in the men’s hearts. This fiesta is a popular one and women are plentiful, according to the older man in the group. But they are astute, cunning, hard-headed ones, he reminds them. Carlos’ heart throbs with excitement. Or maybe it is anxiety.

By the time they arrive at the large meadow where the dance is to be held the sun is fast retreating behind the Faro Mountain. They head for one of the tent bars surrounding the field. The sacristan’s son orders beer for everyone.

‘Carlos must pay for the first round,’ says Ovidio, the apprentice shoemaker.

Carlos is happy to do so. A small price to pay to join the adults’ world, he thinks.

Someone buys another round. The muffled compressor has started and the electric lights, timid at first, come into full life. In the middle of the field, on the stage erected for the occasion, the 7-piece orchestra begins to tune-up.

‘Time for action,’ says one of the men as he finishes his drink.

‘I agree,’ says another, rubbing his hands.

A third discreetly pulls up his trousers, tightens his belt.

Alfredo, Carlos’ mentor in the way of women, gestures to him to stay and orders two cognacs. ‘Beer makes you pee, cognac sharpens both courage and intellect when needed,’ he says to Carlos after the waiter places two glasses of Fundador on the counter mats advertising Estrella de Galicia beer. ‘Besides, there is plenty of time. Sensible women will not settle for the first monkey that comes around waving his tale.’

Carlos is caught between his heart’s wishes and the clarity of Alfredo’s logic. He nods. After a while they leave the tent bar. It is then, walking along the promenade area surrounding the dancers that Alfredo mentions a long-time friend of his who is now coming towards them. Her name is Laura. Her companion is called Antonia, she is twenty-one and wearing a green and white summer dress.

Carlos instantly likes Antonia’s slender neck and large grey eyes. The introductions over, Laura says she feels like dancing, takes Alfredo by the arm and they join the dozens of couples on the dancing area. Carlos and Antonia follow.

Carlos has always suspected that adult dancing will be different from the dancing in short pants with his cousins and their friends, as they learned the steps to match the tunes. But he never anticipated the pleasure and the illusion of heat stealing through his arms and legs.

Minutes seem to be passing. Or perhaps it is hours. Yet their conversation has gone not much further than revealing the names of the villages they come from or commenting on the large number of people that turned up for the night dance. When their eyes meet, Antonia smiles or looks at him intently, both clearly an invitation to talk. But in his flurry of erotic embarrassment his mentor’s lines to assist in the early courting stages have slipped from his memory and he just smiles back.

During the fireworks display at midnight they meet with Alfredo and Laura in one of the tents for a glass of wine, cheese, bread and olives. Laura and Alfredo have been longer at the bars than at the dancing and talk and laugh a lot. They are both thirty—four. She tells Carlos that Alfredo is a good man but romantically unreliable. ‘Please don’t let him influence you,’ she says to Carlos, and places her hand on his.

A new orchestra is on the stage when they return. It plays mostly slow dance tunes. Antonia fits perfectly in Carlos’ arms and he in hers. At two o’clock the orchestra leader wishes everyone good night before playing one last tune. Carlos and Antonia walk to the village square where her friends are gathering for their walk home.

‘Will I see you again?’ Carlos manages to ask.

‘Perhaps,’ she replies. She then encloses his face in her hands and kisses him on the lips.


Carlos joins his neighbours at the local tavern and after one last drink they head for home. They talk of this and that: of the musicians, the two guardia civiles and their good-looking horses, of the fireworks. It seems they talk of nothing until the sacristan’s son announces he has got a date for the forthcoming dance at the village of Santa Fe. Another man curses his luck. A third feels cheated because his dance partner of the early evening decided to go back to her boyfriend. Alfredo tells him that, ‘When the cravings of the body and of the heart come together there is nothing you can do.’

Carlos does not take part in the group’s deliberations. Slowly he is going through the night’s emotions from the moment he saw Antonia’s large grey eyes and hears her soft voice, the warmth of her hand in his as they dance, her scent, her nearness, and he hasn’t got a thought for anything else.

In their various states of emotional and physical tiredness, they are not conscious of the stillness in the air until the pale light of the moon is hidden by dark clouds rapidly advancing upon them. Sparse and thick drops of rain begin to fall as they enter the path running through the village cornfields. For a moment they consider retreating and sheltering in a water mill nearby. They decide to hurry ahead.

The downpour catches them halfway through the corn fields. Soon the soft earth under their feet turns to mud. They trudge ahead in silence and near darkness. In the bluish flashes of lightning someone points out their resemblance to the scarecrows protecting the corn from birds and they all laugh. When they get to the village, the rain has stopped.

Dripping water on the flagstones of the kitchen, Carlos removes his mud-clogged shoes and soaked clothes. After fetching a towel and pyjamas from his bedroom, he hangs his new suit from the hooks in a ceiling beam used for hanging the hams to dry after two weeks immersed in salt. On the elevated hearth he stirs the embers to life although the kitchen is still warm from his father’s regular Sunday cards game with neighbours. In a saucepan near the fire, his mother has left beef stew from the Sunday dinner as she said she would. He eats some of it and goes to bed. For a long while he lies staring at the darkness, thinking of Antonia and their physical intimacies just hours before. He feels the taste of her lips on his is ebbing. Other emotions are bubbling in his mind that, apart from sex, he doesn’t recognise.

Some hours later, the cashmere of highest quality suit will be dry but unrecognisable: patches of grey, green and yellow have replaced the original blue. Arms and legs have shrunk unevenly. One of the coat’s lapels has all but disappeared.

In the morning, when Carlos comes down for breakfast, the crippled garments have been removed. His mother is putting away the dishes from the night before. Her face is sombre. Every now and then she sighs so loudly that Marisa the cat, in the wicker basket, stops grooming her kittens. But he feels just fine. For now anyway.

Issue 23, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 21-25,



ResearchGate I So Much Smoke

April 20, 2020

J. Miguel Alonso-Giráldez 

‘So Much Smoke’: La experiencia migratoria de Félix Calvino a través de la nostalgia autobiográfica y la elaboración literaria de la vida cotidiana.

Goodbye 2019

December 31, 2019

Dear Friends,
It’s time to say, “Goodbye, 2019!”
It was a good year for reading, rereading mostly, and I would like to share with you some lines that remain clear in my head:
“Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard . . . .
 —Virginia Woof, The Mark on the Wall
"Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories, when heard, stop the unilinear flow of time."
 —John Berger, What Time Is It?
Best wishes for 2020

So Much Smoke I Magdalena Ball I Compulsive Reader

February 24, 2019

So Much Smoke
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The short stories that make up Felix Calvino’s book So Much Smoke are oddly familiar. Perhaps there is something universal in the migrant experience that is transmitted through his delicate prose. Perhaps it’s because of the distinctive coupling of nostalgia and immediacy that make up these dreamlike stories. The settings are charged with tenderness and a sense of loss, even when action is present tense.
The stories are mostly very short, with the exception of “The Smile”, which is almost a novella in length. In nearly all of these stories, the conflict occurs in the spaces between action – in dreams, in prophesy, in a growing self-awareness, and in memory. In the first story, a young girl’s dreams are prophetic. Her mother worries she will be called names at school. Though the story has a hint of a dark edge to it, it pivots on moments of tenderness that seem to exist in an alternate space. In another story, a boy, the narrator, agrees to kill a hen for his mother, but the job is harder than it looks. When the boy uses a shotgun rather than a knife to do the dirty work, his maturity is called into question. In “What Do You Know About Your Friends”, the family home is left to two brothers after a father dies intestate. This is one of many stories about death and inheritance. The brothers have different ideas about how to manage the home and one is left struggling to manage his place on his own. In the title piece, a forty-year old man inherits the family home on his mother’s death, but as the will states that he must take the house unencumbered he has to pay bills he can’t afford. In each of these stories, there is a strong visual impressions—almost like a painting—that create the tension. The activity almost feels beside the point against these visuals.  Each scene is set up in careful detail like a tableau:
The early morning autumn sky was grey as he stood and listened to the silence. At the far end of the yard, under the mango tree, the neighbour’s black and white cat watched intently for birds. (“The Smile”)
The feeling created is one of heaviness: an inertia that the characters have to struggle against. There is politics, but it is subtle. We know that Franco’s Spain is both home in the Ithaca sense – beautiful in memory, but also the place that must be escaped. Poverty, unemployment, and fear provide the backdrop. It has already been left. Sydney too, the destination, becomes defamiliarised. The protagonists are always struggling with identity; always outsiders marked by mannerism, clothing, accent. These characters tend to be caught – the role of migrant becoming a permanent state of being rather than a transitory one. It’s an uncomfortable space, where the conflict is not caused by action but by a struggle for meaning – a coming into being that never quite actualises. The plight of the migrant is a recurrent theme in all of these stories, and the ‘migratory’ process is not always a motion from place to place but also occurs through time and memory and through linguistic process, language becoming a metaphor for the self. In “The Dream Girl”, Gabriel works hard to read and write in his native Galician, discovering the work of Rosalía de Castro, a Galician author, and finds some meaning in the discovery of his transition:
Adjustment is a complex subject. Many of them [Galician migrants] have managed a measure of success, but the other life, the one up to the point of departure, is always etched in their memories. No matter how well integrated they are in the adoped society, each of them has his or her concealed hinterland. (121).
Though the stories are very much in the literary realist tradition – much of the plots centre around everyday activities, depicted without overt artifice, there is an air of magic that pervades the work. Calvino handles it very subtly, rooting the magic in natural occurrences like sleepwalking, superstition, fever, premonitions, and grief. Always there’s a sense that the world is not quite fixed and that what we’re experiencing is illusory (so much smoke), and charged by scars, memories, hunger, and all that we’ve lost. The stories that make up So Much Smoke are powerful, not so much because of what happens, but because of the way they hint at how much lurks below the surface. Though the work is rooted in the settings that Calvino creates so well, there is always a self-referential modernism that keeps pushing against a linguistic otherness: the unsettling nature of language and the shock of transition. So Much Smoke is a nuanced collection, full of place, space, and subtle epiphany.

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

The New York Times

August 29, 2018

My recent appearance in The New York Times es

La literatura hispanoamericana que se escribe en inglés – Español

Translate this page

“Nómadas posnacionales, en los viajes, en las lecturas, en la gestión y en la vida profesional los escritores de origen hispano están en contacto constante con esa otra lengua”.
El fenómeno no solo afecta a la relación de América Latina con Estados Unidos. Félix Calvino, de origen gallego, emigró a Australia en los años sesenta y es ahora un escritor australiano con tres libros publicados, reconocido por la academia y por la crítica.

So Much Smoke I Antípodas XXVIII

August 29, 2018