Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
In his masterful new short fiction collection, Young Love and Other Stories, Félix Calvino explores the shadows, shades, and occasionally shady dealings of the people who inhabit a village in the Carballo area of Galicia, Spain. The interplay between light and shade, silhouettes, shadows, and mirrors, is central to this collection. These stories of village life are set in a liminal time: post-war but pre-electricity. At the one-room school, the lone teacher makes annual promises that the shrinking village will be connected to the grid the following year, while a dwindling group of ageing men gather after the winter rains each spring to fix the unsealed roads.
This may seem like a simple existence. Yet the lives of shepherds, trout fishers, cowherds, basket-weavers, carpenters, healers, and publicans are complex and multifaceted. Though a character may glimpse the bucolic idyll, threats of starvation, social exclusion, and damnation loom over the landscape, casting shadows of potential ruin. To live in a village is to know everyone and be known by everyone. To have one more cow than a neighbour is to rank above them in the social order, but also to teeter precariously close to peril. Fields can flood, livestock can sicken and die, crops can be ravaged by drought. To be different is to be a pariah, suspect, scapegoat. Yet all is not as stifling as it may seem.
Calvino enters into a dialogue with the giants of European art – visual, sculptural, poetic, prose, and dramatic – who juxtapose light and dark in an eternal, futile battle. In the Christian universe, the Devil must remain subordinate to the omnipotent God who created him. Good must ultimately triumph. Yet, this dichotomy provides the tension in so much of European art and literature. Italian artists like Caravaggio used tenebrismo in their paintings. A harsh, dramatic light isolated and accentuated heroic figures, throwing the spotlight on the struggle between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, God and Satan. Calvino witnesses the implications and repercussions of this simplified, fabricated cosmos of chiaroscuro. Yes, God is Light, but so too was Lucifer the Angel of Light before his fall. Calvino recognises this kinship and rejects reductive binary oppositions. Instead, his characters inhabit a world of subtle shades and hues: the greys brighten to white as often as they darken to black.
Calvino’s collection opens with “Sunday Lunch” (1-27): a meditative tale of loss and death that introduces two protagonists who re-emerge in later stories the way shoots sprout from the soil in spring. When the last female inhabitant of the village, Avelina, dies, Amadeo and Manuel, the two surviving men, must bury her in the proper manner. Things do not go as planned. The pair must make do and mend as they have all their lives. Because it would take four men to shoulder a casket, Amadeo and Manuel improvise. Thus, “the spectral silence of the village” is disrupted by “the screeching of the rusty old wheelbarrow” that will cart the body of their friend to her grave (25).
Meanwhile, Mateo the dog watches on, a constant companion whose loyalty, dogged persistence, and bathetic banality mirror the life of his owner, Manuel. Walking alone through the ghost village at dusk, Manuel lowers his eyes, and the reader is granted a glimpse into his thoughts: “This was the hour of neither day nor night, when shadows, malformed, real, or imagined, appeared from nowhere, silently. Shadows and ghosts were like twin brothers, he thought” (5). Manuel’s matter-of-fact musings are presented without pomp or flourish. In this twilight realm, almost anything is possible, and almost everything thought relegated to the past is capable of re-emergence, regeneration, regrowth, reappearance… perhaps even resurrection.
Calvino’s deft touch with free indirect discourse is further evident in the delightful “Young Love” (28-71). This story alternates between two focalisers – a youthful Manuel and the love of his life, Amelia, who is lost to him under tragic circumstances. The word “Carballo” not only refers to the region where the village is located, but also the oak in the Galician language. Fittingly, one of Manuel’s “favourite pastimes” is to lie on his back “under the enormous oak trees” where he dreams of describing to his beloved Amelia the numinous luminosity of “the sun’s rays filtered through the green leaves” (38). In such moments, the young man, both tortured and thrilled by his nascent feelings for his paramour, is dappled with light and shade under the protective, penumbral oak tree.
Calvino’s stories are punctuated with such quietly clever moments. His prose is as unassuming and unhurried as the characters he depicts, yet also as deep, generous, and abundant as the rivers and streams that flow through this rural region of Spain.
Again, at key moments in this story, Calvino focuses his lens on a character’s thoughts to evocative effect. Manuel heads to a workshop where the young men and boys gather to discuss the ever-mysterious matters of the flesh, the heart, and the opposite sex. As he walks, he observes the time of day told through the waning sunlight: “The afternoon shadows were lengthening, he noted. Shadows had always intrigued him. They were part of his first recollections” (49). Light and shadow are mutually dependent Calvino seems to suggest. We need both. We cannot have one without the other.
Thus, in “Abel’s Journey” (79-133), the reader learns that the protagonist is rapidly going blind, his vision obscured by shadows. Abel keeps a gallery of mental images to retain memories of places lost in the shadows of time. An orphan passed from house to house, often treated less as servant than slave, Abel is a figure of the shadows. The children at one house – no different in age to him but accorded the status of family members rather than an inconvenient mouth to feed – torment him before a flickering fire. They fill his shoes with “glowing embers and ash” (85). Fire should provide light and warmth and the means to cook nourishing food, but it is used to belittle the servant boy and destroy his meagre possessions.
By contrast, shadows provide comfort. There, Abel can rest in anonymity and be certain of the passage of time: “he could always tell the hour by the shadows shortening in the morning and lengthening in the afternoon on familiar trees or a wall” (95). However, as Abel is uprooted so often, he is constantly displaced, rendering everything unfamiliar once more.
Finally, Abel settles into a family that cares for him and treats him like a son. He has found a potential wife, Pilar, whose father is dead and whose mother’s health is failing, meaning that she offers a modest house and land for them to fix and farm together. However, just as his future appears bright, Abel faces losing his sight entirely. The doctor despairs. Christina, Abel’s fearful protector and the matriarch of the household he serves, turns her gaze inwards. She is torn between risking the wrath of God by taking her ward to a healer in a nearby village – a woman denounced as Satanic by the Church – and the prospect of having to support a blind man for the rest of his life. Her husband’s land can barely sustain their family. She prays. She rues her misfortune. She considers accepting her fate as ordained by God. Yet, a faint hope glimmers. It is offered by the healer.
There are signs that all will be well. The village of Pereiras, where the healer lives, nestles between hillsides dotted with “ancient oak trees” (126). Again, the oak, the mightiest of trees according to the medieval Christian concept of the Great Chain of Being, towers over the protagonists of these pages. The oak was here long before the roots of Christianity took hold, and a magical, mystical, pagan presence haunts this region. A spirit of the land predates Christianity, and Abel is attuned to it.
This communion is conveyed through the revelation that Pilar loves the “quiet stability” that Abel brings to her life and his suggestions for “the planting of trees” on her family’s property (109). In this way, Abel is allied with the strong, silent oaks that cast their shade over the village, hills, and waterways of Carballo. He is also a man of the shadows, not bothered by the villagers’ superstition that they are “the hiding place of ghosts” (132).
Here is subtle complexity. While Abel finds it strange that “some people were afraid of shadows,” he also recognises that “shadows had been a source of hope as well as frustration” for him (132). Shadows are “handy to measure the height of the church’s bell tower, or a tree,” and they were “inexplicable companions in his childhood” (132): friendly, if unfathomable. However, Abel also realises of the shadows that “for many years, he had believed they were hiding the face of his mother” (132). Orphaned, abandoned, unclaimed by his unknown father and unwanted by his unwed mother, Abel is a product of shady circumstances. So, too, is Marcia: the healer who protects his remaining vision. She lives in the shadows of oppression and persecution. It is unsurprising, then, that her face becomes obscured by time once Abel’s future is secured: “All his efforts to install Marcia’s image in his scene gallery had failed” (133).
By contrast, Calvino’s collection is a triumph. While Calvino eschews binary oppositions and superlatives in his writing, his readers may find themselves resorting to almost hyperbolic descriptions of his work. Calvino delivers a superb collection of fiction that builds upon his earlier work even as it digs deeper into the past and roams further from his adopted country of Australia. At once profound, comic, and tragic, Young Love and Other Stories is a stunningly-rendered kaleidoscope of rare beauty. Not all is monochrome. Warm and radiant with light. Dark as though diving deep into the hearts and minds of the people of Carballo. Calvino’s work relies on contrast and contradiction. That is its power.