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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller"

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade......"

With a beginning like that, you kind of know you are in for an intriguing read.
Italo Calvino has always been difficult to categorize for readers and critics alike. He was a raconteur one moment, a poet the other. He could write about anything, and he could write about nothing in particular. With a Calvino novel, you never quite know what you're gonna get. But this one was easily one of the best reads I've had for some time.

"If On a Winter's Night a Traveller" is a remarkable novel on many counts, the very first of which you will notice is that the unnamed protagonist is "you", that is the reader. For the purpose of this review, I will henceforth refer to "you" as "he" lest my grammar goes for a toss. The protagonist buys a new novel by a writer called Italo Calvino, but the novel turns out to be something else entirely, a little-known work by another author. His search for the unfinished novel leads him to another book, and then another, in what becomes a pattern of sorts. The novel is structured in that way, like a Chinese puzzle-box:alternate chapters are devoted to the book-within-the-book.

While the main action is engaging enough, it is in the books-within-the-book that Calvino showcases his full repertoire. They are atmosperic, shadowy narratives all of which contribute something to the overall impact on the reader.They are thrillers, adventure stories, psychological ruminations, erotica.... you name it. During the course of his quest for the real novel, the protagonist meets a fellow reader, Ludmilla, her overbearing scholarly sister Lotaria and finally realises he has become unwittingly involved in an international intrigue dealing with apocrypha, the concept of authorship and the impact of the written word.

Calvino uses these stray narratives to propagate some of his own pet peeves- Who is the author? What reallly is a story? The intimate and edgy relationship between the written word and the images formed by the reader's mind is a key and recurring motif as well. He satirizes the notion that a story is a discreet identity where everything has to be pristine and particular. At one point Ludmilla says, "I prefer reading novels that bring me immediately into a world where everything is precise, concrete, specific. I feel a certain satisfaction in knowing that things are made in that fashion and not otherwise....."

Right towards the beginning, there is such a hilarious description of the process of buying books, that I kept returning to it, before even finishing the novel. "But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category of Books Read Before Being Written..."This is one of many potshots Calvino takes on the pitfalls of genre fiction. This aspect takes full flight later on in the book, with the introduction of the character of Silas Flannery, a reclusive writer of assembly-line thrillers.

Flannery is a composite of many popular genre writers, among them Ian Fleming. There is a stirring passage where Flannery watches a young woman through a telescope, reading a book. He is in the process of writing another novel at that time, and he becomes obesessed with the idea that the woman is reading his novel, the work in progress, even as he types it out......this plot device is used to great effect to suggest that the book is made as much by the author as by the reader; that as we read a book, we change....subtly, imperceptibly, but we do. And funnily enough,in Calvino's case,so does the book!

These Borgesian flights of fancy notwithstanding, Flannery was the most fascinating character in the novel for me. He is a vehicle for Calvino to air his existential angst as a writer, to question the very roles of the reader and the writer. Sample this:

"What does the name of the author on the jacket matter? Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved and who knows which author's names will be remembered......perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer."

The themes of duplication and the author as creator gather steam when Flannery finds that all around the world, fresh translations of his novels are appearing.....but they seem to be novels he never wrote in the first place. Ermes Marana, a mysterious man working for the ridiculously named OEPHLW(Organisation for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works) seems to be behind this. He claims to have "cracked" the Flannery novel, and is now churning them out with the help of his organisation.

"A team of ghost writers, experts in imitating the master's style in all its nuances and mannerisms is ready and waiting to step in and plug the gaps, polish and complete the half-written texts so that no reader could distinguish the parts written by one hand from those by another......It seems that their contribution has already played a considerable part in our man's most recent production"

Calvino is not interested in winding things up: he intends to make things more complicated with each passing chapter.He has managed to create the literary equivalent of an anti-particle: this books is at once a homage to and a negation of the conventional novel and its norms, as we know them. While this might put off a few readers, my own take on the issue is: just go with the flow, and you won't regret it! The book is full of hilarious moments and painfully accurate satire set-pieces. The character of Lotaria is a gross caricature of "academic" critics. Following a public reading of one of the unfinished texts that the protagonist reads, Lotaria and her cronies immediately burst forth

"The polymorphic-perverse sexuality......"

"The laws of a market economy....."

"The homologies of the signifying structures"

"Deviation and institutions......"

Moreover, when Lotaria goes to see Silas Flannery, she reveals she has speed-read all of his novels in a rather unique fashion: programming a computer to sift through the words used in order of their frequency!(19-blood, cartridge, belt,commander,life,teeth,shots) She then proceeds to see those frequently used words to surmise what the novel is about. Flannery is flabbergasted and rightly confused.. "Now every time I write a word, I see it spun around by the electronic brain, ranked according to its frequency."
The overall air about the novel is "one of constant climax" (this phrase was used by David Denby of the New Yorker to describe The Dark Knight). Calvino, like Borges, is obesesed with the mystical power of books and they play a key role in this novel. As Silas Flannery says in the book,

"The romantic fascination produced in the pure state by the first sentences of the first chapter of many novels is soon lost in the continuation of the story:it is the promise of a time of reading that extends before us and can comromise all possible developments. I would like to be able to write a book that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object."

This is a highly accomplished work by an acknowledged master(Random House certainly agrees... the edition I read was a "Vintage Classics" edition!).... post-modern, metafiction, call it what you will.....but beg, borrow or steal this one fast....I mean it! I'll cap it off with another one of my favourites from the book

"Your mind has interior walls that allow you to partition different times in which to stop or flow, to concentrate alternately on parallel channes. Is this enough to say you would like to live several lives simultaneously? Or that you actually do live them? That you separate your life with one person or in one environment from your life with others, elsewhere? That in every experience you take for granted a dissatisfaction that can be redeemed only in the sum of all dissatisfactions?"

Genius....pure genius.

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