Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
So Much Smoke
By Felix Calvino
Australian Scholarly Publishing
Paperback, 150 pages, Dec 2016, ISBN: 139781925333992
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.