Friday, July 08, 2005

Book: If on a winter's night a traveler

My entire aesthetic evaluation scale might just be based on a single story by Italo Calvino, a story that I’ve never even read. But the outlines of the story are known to me: A poet is spending his days on a tropical island far away; On said island, he finds two contrasting kinds of imagery, side by side: beauty of the tropical nature, ocean, landscapes on one side, poverty, hunger, living at the edge of existence, even ugliness of natives of the island, on the other side. And poet realizes that in his writing, it is much easier to express the second; When talking about misery of the natives, words just keep coming, each more descriptive than the other; But when faced with the beauty of the nature, he finds that no words or phrases that he can come up with, are really sufficient to describe what he sees; None of them would make a far away reader get the real impression of what that side of island is like.

It’s not easy to come to realization that what poet from the story felt was true: ugly things are really easier to describe, comprehend and deal with in written (or any artistic) form. Also, art drains most of it’s inspirations from ugliness. Even though I don’t intend to diminish the importance of dealing with both themes, I found greater appreciation of those who are able to find and express good sides of life.

I told that mostly to describe how influential to me was Italo Calvino. He was an Italian writer, one of the most important Italian writers of 20th century and definitely one of the most imaginative and original writers in the world. He started working as classic Italian neo-realist, but soon he was driven to fable-like forms and postmodern poetics and experimenting. Among all, he has a writing style brought to perfection, as each of his sentences seems to have taken days to be shaped.

To describe span of Calvino’s imagination, it’s enough to tell concepts of some of his works. Take, for instance, trilogy “Our ancestors” that granted him world recognition. This trilogy occupies medieval fable space and consists of novels “The Cloven Viscount”, “The Baron in the Trees” and “The Nonexistent Knight”. Titles are descriptive enough: first one tells the story of a knight who gets cut in half in the battle – to a good and bad half. Both of his halves come back home from the war, alive and well. Second one talks about the Barron who spends his entire life on treetops, and the third one talks about the knight who serves his king, fights in war and wins – even though he doesn’t exist at all: his armor in empty and the only thing that holds it together is idea.

Calvino’s collection of short stories, “Cosmicomics”, verges on the science-fiction; In fact, it is by definition a science fiction, as it is a fantasy fiction inspired by various scientific propositions (in fact, every story starts with a short description of the scientific theory), but it is far from what we usually consider SF, as his stories don’t need a human presence to have a storyteller (a sort of ever existing spirit, I guess). Take “Symbol in cosmos”, for instance, a story placed far away in the past, before planets and solar systems as we know it, were formed; One of such, spiritual rather than material, characters, floats in space, and one day decides to write down a symbol. This symbol is the first symbol ever written, as noone before him ever thought of writing a symbol or even connecting it with anything that symbol might symbolize. What follows is flourishing essay on the first symbol in space, extrapolating in every possible direction, as the said character, floating around in space and not being burdened by material problems, has nothing better to do than to think. The story is sometimes hard to grasp (takes a lot of concentration and, well, imagination) but it is wonderful.

Other, much more material of Calvino’s “Cosmicomics”, tells a story of three characters falling through space in parallel trajectories: two males and one female. Now, all those characters know that parallel lines intersect in some infinite point as the space gets curved (so says Einstein), but those characters have all the time in the world, and they know that the point of intersection will eventually come. The only problem is, which male character’s trajectory will intersect with female character’s trajectory first? Which male will reach the female first? This line of thinking launches the narrator, one of male characters, into a vortex of imagination, jealousy and lust.

Now I’ve digressed too far. “Cosmicomics” deserve a text on their own, I’m just trying to show to which extent Calvino’s imagination can go.

Anyway, another collection of short stories, “The castle of crossed destinies”, draws inspiration from a set of tarot cards. As cards are laid on the table, they tell a story, and Calvino intends to tell that story. Each story in this book is based on a different arrangement of the cards.

And so on.

But “If on a winter’s night a traveler” might be based on the most original idea I’ve ever heard. So original that I might not even able to describe it, even though in my head, it makes perfect sense. It just makes me think “How did he come up with it” all over again. It is intriguing enough to say that it is a book in which the main character is the reader of the said book, whose goal through the book is to find the ending of the book – but let’s start from the beginning.

“If on a night a traveler” starts with the story told in a second person. I’ve seen a very few stories told in a second person; In first person, narrator is virtually telling a story about himself; In third person, he’s telling a story about some character over there, someone not necessarily related to any of us. In second person, a narrator is telling a story about the reader, and it is hard to make reader convinced to believe in a story told about him, and that’s why writers rarely attempt it. But Calvino does a good job of making us feel like what we’re described in the first chapter; Yep, he basically starts with “Ok, now you bought a new book by Italo Calvino, and you’ve set down to read it...”. Calvino then proceeds describing how to set ourselves most comfortable, so that the reading would give us greatest joy. And in the second chapter, the said story by Italo Calvino starts.

We get intrigued by the story of an unnamed passenger waiting for a mysterious delivery on a strange train station. At this point, it seems like the chapter in second person was just an amusing introduction. But second chapter ends abruptly and in the third chapter we are back at the second person story.

The reader from Calvino’s story, just like the one who is holding the book, is interrupted at the most interesting moment by finding out that his copy of the book is bound wrong and that, instead of the story he started reading continues into some other, unknown story. Reader rushes into the bookshop hoping to find the continuing of the story he started reading. After some discussion with the bookshop seller, he finds the right book, goes back home, continues reading...

And then we’re faced with another fictional beginning of the book – until we are interrupted again.

In fact, the whole book consists of 10 beginnings of books of various genres, tones and writing styles, intersected with 11 chapters of the story in second person, which, we realize, is the real story of this book. The book is actually an adventure about the reader who is trying to find the ending to his book, just like some other adventurer would try to find a hidden treasure (this twist in adventure genre is typically postmodern, just like the twist in form is). The reader wonders through abandoned parts of libraries, meets obscure literature professors, travels to meet with old novelist who might have a clue for him... His pursuit is for the ending of a book but also (he later realizes) for the woman he meets along the way, who is another reader.

The level of identification with the character is greater than ever. Even though past first chapter, what happens to a fictional reader is far from what happens to a real reader, and part third chapter it is unlikely something that would happen outside of a book, in those first chapters, Calvino is so convincing in describing what is happening to us, that later, we are ready to believe that the adventures in the book are really happening to us, even though it’s obviously not true.

And of course, every time a reader gets his hands on what seems to be the following chapter of the desired book, what follows is what he reads – the opening chapter of said book. Along the Novel, we read ten opening chapters that are far more that just decoration: they all hold pieces of the clue to the mystery, and they all mirror current events from the main storyline, holding character doublers are situations that are symbolizing the entire story so far.

The book overflows with postmodern storytelling techniques: said alteration of the common genres; exchange of roles between writer, reader and character; Fictional and apocryphal book chapters; giant leap from conventional storytelling. The result is, effect that this book has on reader, surpasses by far any effect that the conventionally written book could have. People often think that postmodern is about destructing the fabric of conventional storytelling without giving anything in return. This book proves them wrong, showing that postmodern, whatever it does, can give much more in return.

Of all books I’ve read in my life, “If on a winter night a traveler” is something special. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s wonderful. Read it.


At 5:55 PM, Blogger El Barón Rampante said...

It is reconforting to find someone who shares the pleasure of reading books like "If on a winter´s night a traveler". I found it in a dark corner of my old house; I had read the Baron Rampant (amazing book too) and the title of "If on a winter.." appealed to me. It turned out to be not just a good novel but one of the most decisive and amazing books I´ve ever read in my whole life. I wonder why people don´t read more Italo Calvino... he´s a god between the gods. I mean, as you well said, it seems like all the words have been carefully selected and it would be hard to erase one sentence, even one single word from the book because it would ruin its perfection. Some people don´t like his style, because they say it´s too "imaginative". Precisely. But it´s not just imagination, is poetry, witticism, philosophy, science... all his books, even if they seem tales from a distant and fantastic universe which have nothing to do with reality are in fact more meaningful than any novel. If one compares Calvino to other prestigious writer he will always win, because he´s got everything you could expect from a narrator, and more. Amazing technique, knowledge and interests on many different subjects, a rich life experience and a huge creativity.

At 9:24 PM, Blogger Marhabawatan said...

great article


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