Book Review: "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," by Italo Calvino (Translated by William Weaver)


One of the foremost postmodernist voices in literature, Italo Calvino defied all expectations of a "modern novel" by experimenting with not only a variety of literary genres and expressions, but by also exploring the very notion of author-reader relationship. He was one of the few writers to actively seek answers for the reader, not directly through his text, but through the reader's interpretation of it. As a result, most of his works can be considered as literary puzzles that the reader unlocks as they read through the text (presumably, multiple times.) If on a winter's night a traveler was written as one of his last works of fiction, and shows him at his best.

It is a testament to Calvino's ability as an acute observer of the human condition, that he chose a very bold format for this "novel" -- a collection of incipits, Calvino's term for the beginnings of a novel. As if to counter claims of complacency, repetition or stale narrative style, Calvino frames each of the ten incipits in a very different genre of literary fiction -- a superlative act of silencing critics and providing a lush framework of literary styles for deconstruction! Drawing on the similarity between a reader's desire to integrate a novel, or a story, into his/her life, to completely immerse themselves into the imaginary world created by an unknown author, a sort of dual consummation/consumption, and the desire of a lover to consummate their relationship - Calvino threads together the incipits and the Reader's quest in a comic tale replete with farcical situations that border on the surreal. On one hand, we have the Reader (you!) who is being guided through their quest by an invisible author over their shoulder, and whose quest to read the novel If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by an Italian author called Italo Calvino, is repeatedly hampered by hilarious dead-ends; and on the other, the same Reader is on a tangential quest to win the love of the Other Reader, whose mutual interest in Italo Calvino's novel sets off the entire chain of events in motion!

The narrative is set as a literary puzzle, and the solution is unveiled chapters alternating with the incipits. Calvino's style is a treat in metafiction, and too often the text not only describes the novel, but also indulges in quite a bit of post-structuralism - the opening chapter is a unique "recipe card" for the very act of reading, not just this, but any novel! Calvino's author is an omnipresent yet invisible entity in the entire book, but never does his presence feel forced into the text as an entertainment gimmick. Characters routinely overlap between stories, and one is left wondering if Calvino intends the characters to be persons, or merely personas. To say anything else about the plot would already be giving away too much of the surprise. It is one of those books that should get its own YouTube video for "reader reactions as they read the opening chapter of this novel" -- really! But don't take my word for it, just go and read this book already!
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