Salman Rushdie

At the beginning of Italo Calvino’s first book for six years, an entirely fictional personage named You, the Reader, buys and settles down with a novel which he firmly believes to be the new Calvino.

You prepare to recognise the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognise it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary, he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next.

One of the difficulties with writing about Italo Calvino is that he has already said about himself just about everything there is to be said.

If on a winter’s night a traveller distils into a single volume what is perhaps the dominant characteristic of Calvino’s entire output: his protean, metamorphic genius for never doing the same thing twice. In the space of 260 pages, we are given the beginnings of no fewer than ten novels, each of which is a transmogrified avatar of the previous one; we also have a more or less fully-developed love story between the above-mentioned You and Ludmilla, the Other Reader; plus, for good measure, a conspiracy-theory fiction about a secret society known as the Organisation of Apocryphal Power, run by a fiendish translator named Ermes Marana, whose purpose may or may not be the subversion of fiction itself. The OAP is vaguely reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s underground postal service, the Tristero System, and almost certainly has covert links with Buñuel’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, the only comic terrorist organisation in the history of the cinema. In fact, I should like to postulate the existence of a secret relationship between Calvino and Buñuel, both expatriates living in Paris and scheming the overthrow of All Anyone Holds Sacred – after all, Buñuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty, with its almost infinite sequence of plots which take over the movie, one after the other, with astonishing casualness, is the work of art which most closely resembles If on a winter’s night a traveller.

It is entirely possible that Calvino is not a human being at all, but a planet, something like the planet Solaris of Stanislaw Lem’s great novel. Solaris, like Calvino, possesses the power of seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams to life. Reading Calvino, you’re constantly assailed by the notion that he is writing down what you have always known, except that you’ve never thought of it before. This is highly unnerving: fortunately, you’re usually too busy laughing to go mad.

The first message from the planet Calvino was received on Earth as long ago as 1947. This was The Path to the Nest of Spiders, a war story sired by Ernest Hemingway out of Italian neo-realist cinema about a cobbler’s apprentice who joins the Partisans and finds the friend he has always longed to have. Although this book has one of the great titles of 20th-century literature, it’s really no better than worthy, and the last sentence appears to have dipped its feet in slush. It reads: ‘And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.’

I have quoted this line in full because it is the last example on record of a bad sentence by Italo Calvino. After Spiders, he tells us, ‘instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the (“neo-realistic”) novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.’

Shazam! Instant metamorphosis, caterpillar into butterfly, Samsa into giant bug, Clark Kent into Superman, politically-committed Calvino into Captain Italo Marvel. In 1952, he published The Cloven Viscount, which, along with its successors The Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight, he has now collected in the volume entitled Our Ancestors.

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