If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino: Book Review

A remarkable maze to get this book…is the book!

A Romance of the Reader’ said the headline of the review on ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ published in the New York Times in 1981. What better than this headline to summarise this amazing book! 

‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ is a novel written by Italo Calvino, published in 1979. I hold the English translated version by William Weaver (originally the book was written in Italian).

When you pick up this book to read, you sign up for an adventure to trace this book titled ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ and end up reading ten incomplete stories. The author makes you – the reader – the narrator of this book. And, you are not left alone to fend for yourself but with a partner named Ludmilla. It is truly an exemplary premise that paves the way for an enjoyable and intriguing read.

Through the first chapter, I was dismayed whether this was the actual beginning of the book, or was I reading a preface from an over-enthusiastic author who was particular about his readers’ comforts and aids them to complete a book. The chapter enlists the process of book selection, purchase, and how to place them on the bookshelf. It is as if Calvino was with me, throughout my life trying to take notes of my book reading habits, even my struggle to uncover cellophane-wrapped books or reading a book on the sly in my office. He brings out the nuances of book reading so perfectly, for example, “Listening to someone read aloud is very different from reading in silence. When you read, you can stop and skip sentences: you are the one who sets the pace.

After the first incomplete story, you (the protagonist) decide to throw away the defectively printed book but then decide to get it exchanged at the book shop. You follow the course of reading the next incomplete book and tracing the complete version but end up reading another new book.

What makes the process of reading ten unfinished stories interesting is the continuity of ‘you-the reader’ and Ludmilla’s joint exploration of a world of plagiarism, bankrupt publishing house, and circulation of fake translated manuscripts.

In Ludmilla, Calvino has created the portrait of the perfect indulgent reader. In contrast to Ludmilla, is her sister Lotaria who uses a book machine which counts up the frequency of words used in the book for analyzing the story. The third is of course, ‘you’ is confused and who has a bookshelf that can never predict your personality. You also meet a character called Irnerio who is not interested in reading but creates marvelous art pieces from books.

Calvino creates a fictional country called Cimmeria. A small country that existed in a time amid the two World Wars, and was captured by the Cimbrian Republic and the literature of this modern yet now dead language suffered. Professor Uzzi Tuzii, the head of the department of the Cimmerian language at the university knows the futility of continuing the study of a dead language for the new generation. He explains how writers of Cimmerian language published their work under pseudo names to be turned into a Cimbrian masterpiece.  

At a café with Ludmilla, you meet Mr.Cavedegna, from the publishing house and the fraudulent translator Ermes Marana. This translator had used the names from the Cimbrian book but translated the rest of the text from the Polish novel ‘Outside the town of Malbork’. Marana is involved in creating fake copies of the novels by changing the book jackets and interchanging the content.

The perspective of a writer is explored through Silas Flannery. From the diary of Silas Flannery, we learn about him, the writer who envies the girl sitting on the deck and reading while he is facing the writer’s block.

Strange people circulate this valley: literary agents awaiting my new novel, for which they have already collected advances from publishers all over the world; advertising agents who want my characters to wear certain articles of clothing and drink certain fruit juices; electronic technicians who insist on finishing my unfinished novels with a computer.”

THE TEN STORIES in the book have nothing in common, except that you want to know the end but cannot.

It is in the middle of the first story – ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ that the author makes it clear that ‘I am called “I” and this is the only reason enough for you to invest a part of yourself in the stranger I’. The story is set in a train station, where you are waiting with a suitcase to be exchanged against the backdrop of trains and the platform. It is framed as a detective novel.

You realize under the book jacket of ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, it is a Polish novel ‘Outside the town of Malbork’ of whichyou had read about 30-pages.Now you know the correct title and begin the book. In a house, you are part of the conversation amidst ‘frying of onions’ and utensils in a kitchen. Again, the story leaves you intrigued as it ends with a reference to family rivalries.

But from the names and the places in the book, you gauge the book is not set in Poland, rather in Cimmeria. The Professor at the university hands over ‘Leaning from the steep slope’ to you. Now you are with meteorological instruments and get involved in the escape plan of a prisoner.

You attend a book reading by Lotaria as she promises to complete the story. But instead of reading ‘Leaning from the steep slope’, they read a book called ‘Without fear of wind or vertigo’. This novel was written not in Cimmerian but in Cimbrian. Professor Uzzi-Tuzii says that this book was “a fake…disseminated by the Cimbrian nationalists during the anti-Cimmerian propaganda campaign at the end of the First World War

From there, you land with a book ‘Looks down in the gathering shadow’ set in Paris; you and Bernadette try to get rid of a man’s dead body from your car. Then there is a paranoid professor who hears the telephone rings. He finally finds a student tied to a chair in one of the houses in ‘In a network of lines that enlace’.

‘In a network of lines that intersect’ is a story that begins with the philosophical view on the nature of mirrors and kaleidoscopes. The protagonist wants to multiply his image and is lost in a room with mirrors. I think the author wanted to create the imagery of multiple fake copies of the novels circulating around and the role of ghostwriters.

Now, you have a Japanese novel ‘On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon’ that you read on the plane, to be confiscated by the police at the airport for it is a banned book.

‘Around an empty grave’ is about Nacho’s attempt to find his mother in a place where people resemble each other. And, finally ‘What story down there awaits its end?’ is sort of dystopia, in which you want to erase everything except a girl named Franziska whom you love.

It is an eccentric piece of writing, done with brilliance and there is so much to intake in just one book. There is a dictator who bans Western books, allows the translator to write books only if they agreed to write his memoir, justifying his regime, an old man known as the talking storyteller from India, a veiled Sultana in Arabia who is keen on reading books and the notion that spies send secret messages through manuscripts/ books. This is apart from the main theme of YOU running around the world to find a complete version of the book you set out to read – ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’.

I leave you here with Calvino’s lines – “Do you believe every story must have a beginning and an end?”

I wrote about ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ for the ‘A2Z challenge’ exploring the theme of book covers. If you like to read the post, you may click HERE.

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