Title: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
Author: Italo Calvino
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Date of Publication: 1998
Genre: Modernism and Post Modernism
Dodging from story to story in a periphrasis of what if(s) and would be(s).
In this experimental piece of fiction, Calvino deals with the theme of quest in a uniquely circular fashion. The book begins with an omniscient narrator addressing the reader in a welcome note to begin an unguarded reading experience of this much awaited release. Although initially it may seem that the narrator is guiding the reader towards a better understanding of the contents of the text but it is in reality a lure. The omniscient narrator is a split between Calvino and a narrative voice that further dichotomises into a narrator-traveller and the reader’s own self- reflection. It creates a beautiful mirroring effect which blurs the distinction between the reader inside the book and the real reader outside. This travel is like a ride through the book and also through the vastness of life in general in which reading is the only constant companion. Travelling at a railway station is juxtaposed with notions of time travelling in a world encased in lexical structures that entraps anyone who enters it. “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade,” almost serves as a tagline.
Calvino engages the reader in the reading process that is both empirical and cognitive. Reading begins much before the book is opened; in the cover picture, the size of the book, the quality of pages and blurbs. The text is then more in the mind of the reader than in the words on the page. Reading is not restricted to texts alone. It also engages people just as the Reader is engaged in understanding the psychology of the Other Reader, her reasons behind choosing a particular book and estimating her tastes. Both the Reader and Other Reader have to constantly deal with the frustration of printing errors as the first section of each book they buy is repeated over and over in subsequent pages. Though the book stores guarantee to replace faulty copies, the new print editions are equally damaged. The books end abruptly at key junctures and climaxes are dashed to unfold a whole new set of characters in an unfamiliar setting with a completely different storyline. Chapters are titled alternately with numbers and names. While adding to the suspense and absurdity, it coalesces the usual spacio-temporality leading to jolts of inertia as we are thwarted in and out of tales. Though the book endlessly weaves up tales which never conclude but that should not be assumed as supposedly meaningless.
The text is episodic but contiguous. The Reader exchanges numbers with the Other Reader Ludmilla who is a voracious reader. Her phone is answered by her sister Lotaria who is of an opposite nature. She is grim and grumpy. From her the Reader learns of Ludmilla’s experiments at the Lab of Cimmerian Languages run by Professor Uttzi Tuzzi. The episodes combine comedy and satire while reflecting the difficulties of research in extinct languages or the loss of importance in the study of languages that has been replaced by scientific experimentation. The Non- Reader is a highly memorable figure who vows to never read even sign boards. This is his manner of silent protest against the indoctrination of reading as a compulsion since childhood. Another important figure is Silas Flannery and his suffering of the writer’s block. Echoing J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, this episode sets into motion the relation between the real and the illusion as also that of the writer with the reader, the audience, the publishing house and the cultural image of authorship.
Calvino’s style is analogous to the elasticity of his themes. He glides between ideas just as each incomplete story flows into another incomplete story repetitively. The suspense that is built initially is elevated and held till the very end. The last chapter being the shortest, sees the marriage between the Reader and Other Reader as this engaging process of reading and interpreting becomes never ending. Travel does not lead to physical displacement but a mobility in and out of textual nuances enclosing poetic fluidity.
A thrilling topsy turvy ride compressing the existential exuberance within the literary community and book loving circles.