Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Félix Calvino’s So Much Smoke occupies a liminal space between the old world of village life in the Spanish pastoral region of Galicia and the new world of Sydney in the 1970s. This is familiar territory for Calvino, who wrote the short story collection A Hatful of Cherries (2011) and the novella Alfonso (2013), both of which examine the Spanish migrant experience in Australia.
In O Tempo como Castigo na Lírica de Rosalía (1986), Luís Caparrós Esperante writes: “The longing (“morriña”) for Galicia is confused with the longing for the past; the emigrant’s longing is similar to the longing for good times gone by.” Esperante might have been describing the experience of the dislocated Fidel, a migrant in the central short story of So Much Smoke, “The Smile,” who returns to live in Galicia after his wife has died in Sydney, knowing that he is destined to occupy a space as much on the periphery of Spanish life as he was a fringe-dweller in Australia. The past can never truly be reclaimed; the motherland remains elusive.
The Galician word “morriña” is translated into English as “nostalgia:” a loan word from Greek that means “ache for the past.” Nostalgia privileges the past as something yearned for but unattainable except through memories. We experience such thwarted desire as pain. For the Galician migrants of Calvino’s stories, pain is always present like a menacing revenant.
In “What Do You Know about Your Friends?” — a highlight of Calvino’s collection — the narrator observes that another character, Pascual, has a past in Galicia that is “slowly pushing him towards the hell of ghosts who dwell in two worlds” (15). Ghosts are present but usually remain unseen, like the Spanish migrant street-sweepers, cleaners, and labourers who inhabit these stories and who are rendered invisible in Australian society. Indeed, Calvino plays with what is unseen and what is on the edge of sight, inverting and subverting the reader’s gaze.
In “The Smile,” Fidel and his wife have both been cursed with faces so extremely ugly that they draw stares wherever they go, rendering them visible in an unsettling and unheimlich way. They build a walled garden around their Sydney house to escape into: a sanctuary that emulates the gardens of the stately home in Galicia that had once offered them refuge from another hostile society. After a priest in Galicia refuses to marry them, saying that they are so misshapen that they should not be allowed to reproduce, the couple flee to Sydney where they hope to attain some sort of anonymity. Yet, as objects of the gaze, the pair are unable to avoid scrutiny even in a society which pushes migrants to the margins.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from morriña is the Japanese concept of “natsukashii” which refuses to privilege the past or the present. Instead, each is held up as equally valuable because necessarily transitory. With the pleasant feeling of natsukashii, the past is recognised as a time of happiness which was vacated out of the necessity for growth and which gives meaning to the present. Natsukashii recognises that there can be no butterflies without caterpillars. People move on.
However, in Calvino’s work, the central problem is often a reluctance or inability to move on. Thus, the protagonist of Alfonso recognises that “the pain of nostalgia paralysed him” (21) and, as a result, the “demarcation” between the “two universes inside his head … had dissolved, allowing the old one to infect the new” (75). Indeed, infection and disease are recurring motifs in Calvino’s stories: for example, Fidel’s wife, Consuelo, dies suddenly from a brain tumour. Fidel’s two universes collapse and he must return to Galicia knowing all too clearly that he can never recover the past. The infection of misfortune afflicts his life in Australia as if it were a return of the repressed; a disease that has lain dormant since his life in Galicia but which returns with renewed and terrifying vigour.
Only occasionally does the tension between the two worlds of past and present resolve itself in Calvino’s stories and still even more rarely does a character transcend the agony of nostalgia to replace it with acceptance and the gentler recollection of natsukashii. In “The Dream Girl,” true happiness is relegated to the innocent past, a time that was so “sweet” that it should have been “bottled” according to the protagonists, a man and woman who had fleetingly enjoyed a kind of puppy love as children but have gone their separate ways (131). “Bottling” implies preservation but also shutting off one’s vulnerable feelings from a harsh and unforgiving society.
Indeed, the characters in these stories usually inhabit a microcosm rather than a large, anonymous society. There is village life in Galicia where everybody knows your business or migrant life in Spanish-speaking enclaves in Sydney where everyone seems to be harbouring a secret past as the ghoulish figure of the Civil War lurks menacingly in the depths of their collective memory.
Calvino’s spare style creates a hyper-realistic world in which spectres from the past haunt the characters literally in the form of an apparition of Consuelo, who fleetingly manifests herself before the narrator of “The Smile,” and figuratively in the form of memories that are usually disturbing. The prose is often stark which suits the sometimes sinister subject matter and unnerving themes: a chicken is tied up and shot by a boy who is too cowardly to slit its throat; later, the boy resurfaces as a teenager who begins to take sadistic pleasure in tormenting his mother until his wish is granted. As he has tortured his father’s dog, it will not bond with him and so he wants a new dog; eventually, his father capitulates and orders the old dog to be shot. The moment when the dog is killed forms the final image of Calvino’s collection, leaving a disconcerting ending to linger in the mind, like an uneasy truce between reader and narrator.
So Much Smoke is an intriguing, unsettling read. These vignettes and short stories feature simple plots that deftly frame the potent, often disturbing images and nightmarish visions that haunt Calvino’s intoxicating prose. The absence of complex lyricism makes the prose palatable to swallow but the aftertaste is less bittersweet than bitter. This is acrid smoke, perhaps from a bonfire fuelled by the dried-up, desiccated dreams of migrants seeking a better life only to be ingested by the bleak, surreal city that promised adoption but delivered only partial assimilation. But there is also so much smoke because so much fire: the fire of passion, defiance, and stubborn determination. This is not insipid, watery fiction but an inferno of evocative and provocative prose.