Just imagine. You begin to read a novel. But, in stead of a novel, you read or you have to read, or you are caught in a scenario where you go on reading the beginnings of 10 different novels. And along with this journey you are reading the author’s yarning about you- the reader.
I am talking about Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. It is a maze, an utterly complex and confused web. You read the beginning of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and you go on reading the beginning of Outside The Town Of Malbork, Leaning From The Steep Slope, Without Fear Of Wind Or Vertigo, Looks Down In The Gathering Shadow, In A Network Of Lines That Enlace, In A Network Of Lines That Intersect, On The Carpet Of Leaves Illuminating By The Moon, Around An Empty Grave, What Story Down There Awaits Its End? Ah…! All these are different from each other, opening up in a different set up- with different set of characters and events.
This novel came out first in 1979, in Italian, and its English translation appeared in 1981. Hailed as a ‘postmodern puzzle’, this novel is considered one of the greatest novels of the last century. He was the most-translated Italian author of our times, and still, after more than 30 years of death, is one of the most celebrated and read European novelists. In 2005, Jonathan Lethem wrote in The New York Times, ‘Italo Calvino never wrote a bad book.’
When the book came out in English in 1981, Salman Rushdie wrote a review in The London Review of Books. That review should be appended with the book itself so that we, the readers, be able to grasp its monumental structure and audacious style. Rushdie opined, ‘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.’ He quoted from the book before saying this.
And that was this: ‘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.’
The very first pages of the book test you. If you, the reader, survive that, you proceed, along with Ludmila, the other reader. Let me spill the bean a bit. Or entice you. You get only the beginning of various novels, but you also get a love story involving the two readers. But it is not the everyday love story. And, yes, you, the reader, are the main character.
Calvino first tells you how to start reading this new novel, and his philosophical, or otherwise, and penetrating philippic goes on and on in every alternate chapter. This roller-coaster ride involves ideologies, governments, shadowy organisations, towns, cities, modern complexities, melancholia, dystopian present etc. This book is also about books, publishing industry, censorship, reading etc. The fragmented world of ours is vividly x-rayed by Calvino. Such absurd novel is certainly one of its kind.
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