‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ – Italo Calvino

Fact File:

  • Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was a world-renowned postmodernist Italian writer
  • Both his parents were botanists
  • This book was published 1979 in Italian and 1981 in English (translated by William Weaver)
  • 260 pages long
  • ‘You’ are the protagonist (weird right?)

One sentence summary:

The novel is split into twenty-three sections, the first of which is an excursus on the nature of reading, ten are the first chapters of books which are usually rudely interrupted and unable to be continued, and the remaining twelve (not in that order) are centred on ‘You’ the reader as you, with some help from ‘The Other Reader’, doggedly pursue the novels’ threads, determined to find a link.

My thoughts:

This novel was a very satisfying read and was rich in structural power and poetic language. The ten tantalising sub-novels shift kaleidoscopically; just when I was being gripped by another story and another style, the narrative cut off like an unresolved dramatic chord sequence and I was plunged back into the unifying storyline.

As well as the structure of the novel, the language was exotic and enrapturing. There were beautiful metaphors (presenting a metal grappling hook like a bouquet of flowers) and beautiful thoughts (“Life is nothing but trading smells”) which lent the book a strong poetic feel. Indeed, the tone of the novel sometimes felt like reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez and the symbolic power given to reading as well as the dizzying multi-layered intra-textual sub-novels was only a prehistoric egg’s throw away from magic realism.

Initially, I was worried that the second-person narration would become tiresome and I was rather baffled when there was the first sudden switch to a new, apparently random story. The novel demands concentration and a commitment to the text but as a lazy reader it took me a little while to realise that. Some of the postmodernist rants also lost me a little and the dichotomy between the author as a human and as a voice seemed a little flippant and under-developed next to the power of reading.

Similarly, the latter part of the ‘You’ storyline became extremely convoluted and a lot happened in not very much time. Suddenly ‘you’ are traipsing across the globe on the hunt for the mischievous translator then you are arrested then throwing off the clothes of the woman who’s performing a test on you because you think you recognise her then the author is accosting you for being so lustful. It all becomes a bit of an acid trip. Yet the story does come back to reality and the revelation about the sub-novel titles is good fun.

In conclusion, it is undoubtedly a beautifully written book with a rich structure, if not a little confusing on occasion.


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