If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

You are about to go on a long flight to Cuba. You walk into your local English-language bookshop in Barcelona (yes, there is one) and, in a rare display of spontaneity, you decide to buy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Thinking that it is slightly perverse to read a book by an Italian author when you are heading to the tropics, you comfort yourself with the thought that Calvino is always good value, and in any case, the book is rather short. Then, in twist worthy of the author himself, you discover that Italo Calvino was himself born in Cuba while his father was working there as an agronomist.

Assuredly ambitious and original when first published in 1980, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is no longer the innovative work of metafiction that it was when it originally appeared. The book is a novel within a novel, where you the reader are part of the story, even if Calvino does basically assume that all his readers are male and as apparently libidinous as himself.

The story takes place as you, the reader, try to to track down the complete manuscript of a book called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. The first copy you pick up has had its pages mixed up with another novel entirely, and now you are determined to find the original book. Unfortunately, every subsequent book you find contains the beginning of an entirely new novel, written in a completely different style, and bearing little or no connection to the original story.

Calvino himself describes his work thus

A trap novel designed by the treacherous translator with the beginnings of novels that remain suspended

Unfortunately, whereas some of the stories-within-a-story are wonderfully written, others are abstruse philosophical reflections on abstract matters of little importance, especially in the middle of the book. I was sorely tempted to give up, but there was just enough interest to keep me going, mainly because of the neat hooks that appear in the narratives at the beginning.

The corrugated-iron roof resounded like a drum beneath the downpour; the anemometer spun; that universe all crashes and leaps was translatable into figures to be lined up in my ledger; a supreme calm presided over the texture of the cataclysms.

In that moment of harmony and fullness, a creak made me look down. Huddled between the steps of the platform and the supporting poles of the shed was a bearded man, dressed in a rough, striped tunic, soaked with rain. He was looking at me with pale, steady eyes.

“I have escaped,” he said. “Do not betray me. You must go and inform someone. Will you? This person is at the Hotel of the Sea Lily.”

Calvino is a genius and a superb writer, but there is too little of the above and too much of a ridiculous plot / framing device involving a translator, terrorists, Latin American revolutionaries and Lord alone knows what. The result is the sort of book with little appeal for the general reader, but one that would provide undergraduates with plenty of material to include in an essay, before writing their own pastiche versions of the book.

Just like in my introduction to this blog …

6 responses to “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

  1. I bought this book after you mentioned it a couple of years ago. While it was captivating initially, I must say I found myself falling into the camp of the general reader you describe. I uhh, erm, I, well…. I didn’t finish it.

  2. I read this and enjoyed it, then Invisible Cities came along and blew it out of the water. From what I remember of a discussion I had with a blogger years back, Europeans are more likely to prefer Invisible Cities and Americans, If on a Winter’s Night. Although how accurate that is, I’m not too sure.

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