I was prompted to start reading Italo Calvino’s novels after coming across an article in Foreign Policy magazine “The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls” by a pseudonymed writer Amal Hanano who turned out to be Lina Sergie Attar, a Syrian refugee and activist who lives in Chicago and writes often and emotively about the end of Aleppo. In that her most famous piece, Attar uses an Italo Calvino novel “Invisible Cities” – in which the protagonist Marco Polo describes various cities he has visited to Emperor Kublai Khan until the Mongol finally realizes he’s in fact hearing about the same city over and over again from different angles – as an allegory to show the different sides to the destruction of Aleppo, her home.
Good writers need to read – we often gain inspiration from books we’ve encountered and ways of telling tales that strike a chord in our consciousness as we also hone our own craft; making us at once more ourselves but also more them too. For this reason I enthusiastically picked up a copy of Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler…” (working my way as I am toward “Invisible Cities”).
This novel is the story of readers – two readers specifically; written in second person one of the readers is ‘you’ and the other is a girl who the narrator seeks to love. It is also the story of writers, one legitimate novelist and his nemesis, a fraud who is pawning ‘apocryphal books’ using the famous author’s name and stealing and misplacing titles and translations in a grand conspiracy that eventually reaches back to the girl; as all good stories do. Through the story the protagonist continues to find unfinished books (the first chapters of which are written into the novel, showing Calvino’s versatility) – to be dragged into their stories only to be abandoned as the books are inexplicably truncated. In his increasingly desperate search to find the reason for the fragmentary novels and the villain responsible, you as a reader who are also a character in the story are inescapably captured.
“If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler…” is not a normal book as Calvino is not a normal novelist. If you are expecting a story which requires no thought, a trip where the ending is already known, you might find this book frustrating. But if you are a reader – like Lina Sergie Attar is a reader – you will find yourself in Calvino’s prose – and you might even find an answer or two.