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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino

If on a Winter's Night a TravelerI haven't read a post-modern novel in a while. A long while. So what is a post-modern novel? Let's compare it to art. Take a painting, for example. Before the post-modern era, you'd expect to see a subject in the painting, whether an object, person or scene. There would be color, form and light. Now, then come along Picasso and then HELLO! Jackson Pollack (the guy who splashed paint around on a canvas and makes you think every time you see one, "Hey, I can do that!") No real subject, no form, no light. What is it? It turns everything you expect about art on its head.

"Expect" - that's the key word here. Now, in a novel, you expect certain things, like, a setting, a main character or two, and a plot with a beginning, middle, hopefully a climax before the end. In a post-modern novel, you don't get what you expect. 

Italo Calvino crafts such a conceptual novel in 
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which has been declared his "triumphant response to the question of whether the art of fiction could survive the vast changes taking place in the communications technology of our world."  In some respects the novel is a comedy, overall it's an experimental text. He talks directly to the reader as the book begins, referring to what I'd call the main character as "The Reader" and discusses his/our expectations and the experience of reading. After much rambling, if you manage to hang on, a sort of a story begins. But just as you become curious and interested in the story, the chapter ends and the next chapter is the beginning of a completely different story, title, and author, in time period, place, characters - everything. 

The protagonists, "The Reader" and "The Other Reader" become very frustrated (as do I) and "The Reader" takes the book back to the book store to find out that there was a publishing error and he gets a new copy, but this one starts of with a completely different story, and so on and so forth. 

Basically, each chapter is the beginning of a completely different story held together by "The Reader" and his attempts to track down the end of one or more of these novels. Once I realized this, (after the fourth chapter or so), I was less frustrated, because my expectations had now changed. 

I expected not to get an ending, so I did not allow myself to invest in the characters or story as much, much like someone whose heart has been broken a few too many times. So I continued, less frustrated, but overall a little annoyed. Calvino is the ultimate tease in this novel, luring the reader, getting us all worked up with stories of spies, sex, menace and mystery and then leaves us hanging. As a reader who generally escapes into a story, invests, commits, suspends belief of reality (man, sounds like I fall in love every time I read), this technique of his is offensive and insensitive.
"Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?" 
 Italo Calvino
And so, I acknowledge that this is not your average novel and approach it from an intellectual, literary angle, following Calvino's study of the relationship of the reader with the written word, of how we read and why. I do appreciate his immense talent in writing 10 completely different enticing stories, each one making me yearn for more, but never getting it. 

It's almost as if Calvino thought the beginning of 10 separate novels and couldn't finish any of them, but thought of a way to put them together. This novel may be a work of prowess, a hallmark of the avante-guarde novel, but I find it altogether unsatisfying, without release or closure, an unrequited relationship. 

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