Felix Calvino must surely be one of the most underrated short story writers in this country. Young Love and Other Stories (Arcadia 2021) is his fourth collection, and my favourite so far. Calvino was born in Galacia in Spain and his stories always feature a mix of contemporary or historical settings in Spain, or else are often about the migrant experience to Australia.
Young Love is a series of six interconnected stories where the protagonist of one becomes peripheral in another story, and a minor character barely mentioned in one story becomes the focus of another. In this collection, all of the stories are set in a remote village in the northwest coast of Spain and traverse several decades of individuals and families.
My favourite story is the first – Sunday Lunch – which is set in later years when the village has gradually become depleted of its occupants; the old dying and the young leaving town for better opportunities. There are only three people left, all elderly, all old friends who have lived in the village their whole lives. They live with the ghosts of people past, those who have died, those who have sought new adventures or work, those who have married into another family in another village. The three characters and their lives are closely observed and beautifully described.
The second and subsequent stories move us back to a time when the village was thriving, populated by farmers and traders and shopkeepers, vibrant with families, alive with weekend dances for the young people and the endless potential for possibility. The stark difference between this time and this life and the endpoint that we (as readers) know must come (from the first story) is incredibly moving, tender and poignant. Everything is transient. Whole villages disappear. But nobody knows that at the time they are thriving. Nobody can predict the future.
Each story accesses a different space, a memory of the life and activity of that particular generation of villagers, with references to other characters who may be younger or older, depending on when that story is set. The result is a kaleidoscope of the microcosm of life interwoven.
The final story takes us back to the end, but with a surprising and hopeful twist that reminds us of the continual optimism of life, and the warmth and empathy of the human heart.
Calvino’s writing is spare and simple, with gratifying but not overdone description, and authentic dialogue. His writing takes you directly to the Spain of his youth and depicts scenes as if you are watching a movie. His characters often share the interiority of their thoughts but are never over-explained. There is always a mystery shadowing them, as if part of the tale has been held back. They share concerns, dreams, anxieties, ambitions, regrets and yearnings that will resonate with all readers.