If on a winter’s night a traveler

After a long time of hearing rave reviews, I finally decided to pick up a Calvino. I struggled a bit with the choice of titles, but finally settled on this one, mainly because I love short stories, and I figured this one will come close to that. And it did – not just that, but to a reader who often finds herself disappointed in conclusion of stories, these were all stories with promising beginnings, but limitless ends – for me to chose my own end to each story!

The book revolves around a reader who picks up the latest Calvino, which begins with a promising plot (which is shared with the other reader – YOU) – then finds a printing error in the book, and goes to return the book, to realize that due to an error at the publishing house, the book may have got mixed up with another. Enamored by the plot that he had begun, he buys the other book – but realizes that this is a different book from the one he had begun. Unfortunately this book too is blank after the first chapter. Thus begins this reader’s surreal and comic trail of the ‘real’ book – never going beyond the first chapter and never being able to find the same story again in any of the books. Amidst this pursuit, he also encounters another reader – a girl, whose presence adds a renewed fervor to his book-hunt.

The book is brilliant, not in the ten openings that Calvino has concocted, but whatever goes in the book between these stories. To a compulsive reader, the protagonist in the book is immediately identifiable, and at many points – for instance while describing the process of purchase of a book, Calvino makes you think that he has really come to know you and is talking to you. The fact that he uses a second person narrative also adds to this feeling. I loved the second person narrative – specially the technique of suddenly shifting the second person from one reader to another.

Then at one point Calvino himself comes into the story in the form of Silas Flannery and takes us through the writer’s mind, also in a way defending this book by explaining it away as a dream-book that is “only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectations still not focused on an object”. The entire chapter picked from Flannery’s diary was, to me the best part of the book. Here he describes the process of writing, and the various possibilities that can arise from a simple event. I also liked the last part of the book, in the library – which again tries to explain this hilarious anti-novel by talking about readers’ interests, their quest for a novel they read sometime in the past in everything they read, etc.

This book uses all techniques that could perhaps be taught in a creative writing class – actually this is the one thing that I found kind of annoying in it – it tried a little too hard to be ‘smart’ and ‘creative’. There also wasn’t something particularly great about the ten novels that begin in this book and end in the reader’s mind – most of them are beginnings of pulp fiction works, perhaps with very predictable courses. But that does not take away any edge from the stories – they are interesting possibilities as I said earlier. And these stories are secondary to the theme, which really is the reader’s hunt.

I enjoyed Calvino’s wit and humor, which kept the confusion pretty manageable. I found it whenever I thought of exchanging this anti-novel for a real novel. And so in the end, I had a satisfied smile of a person just off a mad roller coaster – mind-boggling and fun!