Review: James Halfordon Felix Calvino

Felix Calvino’s Lost Galicia: So Much Smoke

James Halford is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the second of three essays by Halford that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Ben Brooker and Ali Jane Smith. Read all the essays here

‘Galicia is a garden where one always breathes pure aromas, freshness, and poetry,’ wrote the romantic novelist and poet Rosalía de Castro in 1863. ‘Lakes, waterfalls, streams … serene blue skies like those of Italy … Need I say more? No pen could enumerate its charms.’ De Castro and other nineteenth-century nationalists of Galicia’s literary Rexurdimiento were moved to proclaim their love of the region at the height of the greatest exodus in its history. Between 1860 and 1910 something like half a million Galicians left for the Americas. This was the largest in a series of mass migrations from the region, which was among the poorest in Spain from the eighteenth century right through to the 1970s. For centuries Galicians had to periodically abandon their farms due to overcrowding, unemployment, and crises in agricultural production. During the nineteenth century they arrived in Latin America in such numbers that ‘gallego’ jokes, based on peasant stereotypes, became a genre of their own. In 1955, the Galician intellectual Ramón Otero Pedrayo, a less romantic nationalist than De Castro, described his home, not as a garden, but as a ‘land of goodbyes.’

Out of this history of material struggle and displacement, Galicia’s writers have fashioned a rich literature. In recent times, a new crop of Galician-language authors – Manuel Rivas, Xose Luis Mendez, and María do Carme Kruckenberg among the most prominent – have carried on the Rexurdimiento tradition at home, even as diasporic writers have created a new branch of Galician writing abroad. All of them have had to negotiate a relationship with the controversial legacy of Galicia’s best-known twentieth-century writer, the Franco loyalist and 1989 Nobel Laureate for literature, Camilo José Cela.

Franco’s dictatorship drove mass migration, not just from Galicia but from all corners of Spain, for decades. The post-war Spanish diaspora spread to Australia, where expatriate communities developed in both Sydney and Melbourne. Australian Immigration Department records show that about 26,000 Spaniards arrived in Australia between 1945 and 1975. Many of them came under Australian government-assisted migration schemes such as Operación Canguro (1958-1963). This was less a humanitarian gesture on the part of the Australian government, and more an acknowledgement that the preferred British migrants were unlikely to work for paltry wages in the Queensland cane fields or the Riverina tobacco plantations. The early Spanish migrants often languished in squalid camps, like the infamous Bonegilla, for extended periods.

The Galician-Australian writer, Felix Calvino, arrived with a slightly later wave of Spanish migrants. Calvino grew up in a small village about an hour’s drive south-east of the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela, and fled Spain in 1964 on his twentieth birthday to avoid military service. In the late 1960s, after a few years learning English in the UK, he emigrated to Sydney and established himself as a restaurateur, wine merchant, and travel agent. He was a prominent member of the Spanish expatriate community, married and had a family. In the nineties, he made a new start in Melbourne, and finally fulfilled a lifelong goal of undertaking tertiary study. His talents as a fiction writer were not discovered until he was well into his fifties. At the encouragement of the Greek-Australian writer George Papaellinas, one of his teachers at the University of Melbourne, Calvino began publishing short stories in Australian and US literary magazines.

His first short-story collection, A Hatful of Cherries (2007), is notable for its juxtaposition of Galician and Australian settings. About half the stories unfold in the underdeveloped, autocratic post-war Galicia of Calvino’s youth, the rest deal with working-class Spanish migrants in 1960s and 1970s Australia. The ghosts of the Spanish Civil War have haunted his writing from the start. In ‘Don’t Touch Anything,’ the child narrator is sent away from the burial of a school mate’s grandfather when the adults stumble upon a mass grave. ‘After that,’ he remarks, ‘dreams of earth and bones often visited me in my sleep.’ Another early story, ‘Two Men at the Border,’ fictionalises the ordeal of escaping Franco’s Spain.

Calvino’s second book, the novella Alfonso (2013), tells the story of a Galician man struggling to invent himself in 1960s Sydney. Alfonso is desperate for the love of an Australian woman, but remains a virgin into his thirties, unable to establish or maintain an adult relationship. Why this sensitive, hard-working, and resilient young man cannot give or receive love is the book’s central mystery. Nothing that we know of him – the loss of his father in the Civil War, his lapsed Catholicism, or his macho Spanish friends’ warnings – fully explains his decade-long terror of Australian women, his decision to sever contact with his elderly mother in Galicia, or the depths of psychological torment to which he subjects himself in his dilapidated Surry Hills terrace house. Calvino’s unsettling imagery and language disrupt what at first appears to be a simple, realist Bildungsroman. The novel gestures at a culturally particular form of homesickness that can never be fully expressed in English. Morriña, the specifically Galician ache for home, has been a favourite subject of its writers since De Castro’s time.

Eight of the eleven stories in Calvino’s new collection, So Much Smoke, return to the nameless Galician village that appeared in his first collection. The very short story or microcuento is a Calvino speciality. At only 600-words, the opener, ‘They Are Only Dreams,’ stands out for its unity and concision. As mother and daughter watch milk boil on the stone hearth of a farm kitchen in winter, the girl confesses she has dreamed of an old man dying. Bells are heard tolling in the village across the river and a neighbour brings news that the shoemaker has died in the night. Spooked, the mother shares this latest proof of the girl’s prophetic gifts with her husband. The man listens as he oils a fox trap in the barn, but refuses to believe.

A sequence of concrete images and sense impressions – the milk, the fire, the dead man’s white beard, the bells, the snow-covered hills, the trap – fulfil a function akin to the effet de réel of the classic realist short story (we might be reading Chekhov or Maupassant). Yet the absence of an authoritative narrator gives equal weight to the man’s positivist viewpoint and the woman’s mystical, religious one. In the tiny clockwork universe of the microcuento, the fox trap never springs closed, so that both readings of the story remain available, and the unresolved tension lingers.

It is no literary effect that Calvino’s stories set in rural Galicia in the 1950s and 1960s sometimes feel like they could be unfolding in the nineteenth century or even the middle ages. After the Nationalist victory, Franco deliberately set back the clock in the Spanish countryside, aiming, as George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia, ‘not so much to impose Fascism as to restore feudalism.’ But Calvino also bears witness to the exhaustion of the old rural order and the arrival of modernity. In ‘The Road,’ a peasant dies without leaving a will, and his two sons must negotiate the division of the family land. Benito tricks his simpleton younger brother José into accepting the swampy, unproductive plot by the coast. But a landslide in a storm results in a sudden reversal of fortunes: ‘the receding waters exposed a stone road, emerging from the sea like a recalled ghost.’ Heritage tourism, not agriculture, it turns out, represents Galicia’s economic future.

The new collection’s novella-length centrepiece, ‘The Smile,’ unfolds closer to home. It is set in the Sydney Spanish community during the final years of the Franco dictatorship, a world of English classes and shift-work, football on the radio, and paella on the stove. The young Galician protagonist, José, befriends an older Spanish couple, Fidel and Consuelo – a street sweeper and a cleaner – whose Sunday lunches in the Andalusian-style garden of their home are a refuge for exiled Spaniards. Calvino’s attention to the rituals of food and drink highlights the way meals bind friendship networks together in the new country. ‘It’s like my mother’s cooking, which I miss,’ remarks one character.

In the Australian stories the elements of parable, fairy tale, and magic realism are less pronounced but not absent. Both Fidel and Consuelo have disfigured faces that frighten children and attract stares from adults. As Consuelo is dying in hospital of an inoperable brain tumour, José experiences a ghostly visitation outside his kitchen window. And, after her death, he continually senses her presence in the mirrors of Fidel’s home. José’s first encounter with loss and grief changes his cynical, skirt-chasing ways. As the younger man helps Fidel through the ‘exquisite pain,’ of his wife’s loss, and learns more about his friends’ marriage, their relationship comes to represent, in his mind, an ideal of self-acceptance and unconditional love he would one day like to experience. Meanwhile, the bachelor must teach his older friend the life skills he needs to survive alone: ‘Fidel learned to boil a potato, fry an egg, grill a steak and hang out the laundry.’ Like Alfonso, Fidel retreats from the material hardship and loneliness of migrant life into memories of his Spanish past. For him, as for thousands of other scattered Spaniards, Franco’s death in 1975, opens the possibility of return.

Calvino’s fiction, too, seems to be moving back to the village. The stories in So Much Smoke rely upon the defamiliarisation effect used in his earlier books: Galicia is made strange through the English language; Australia is made strange by non-native English and a Galician worldview. In this collection, however, the teeming social world of the village takes over, threatening to spill beyond the boundaries of the short form.

This collection firmly establishes Calvino as an English prose stylist. The influence of Anglophone modernist minimalism is apparent and appropriate. Through absence and implication, the stories register feelings of loss the characters themselves often lack the language to articulate. If, as Rosalía de Castro wrote, to sing of Galicia in the Galician language offers ‘consolation against evil, relief from pain,’ to write of it in English implies something else entirely.


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A Hatful of Cherries. Melbourne: Arcadia, 2007.
So Much Smoke. Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016.
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The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.