The Kaleidoscope of Italo Calvino
I started reading the book as just another novel, but by the time I
read the last page, I felt as if I had read about all the writers and
all the novels ever written, and to be written by man in the future. I
read it with a mindset nurtured by Eastern Philosophies and way of life.
The back cover of the English translation quotes from Rushdie,
'Reading Calvino, you are constantly assailed by the notion that he is
writing down what you have always known, except that you have never
thought of it before'. In a way, what all of us are reading all the time
are things that we have always known or should have known in our
There are so many protagonists, if the term protagonist could be used
with regard to this novel, where the reader himself becomes a
protagonist. One of Calvino's characters says, 'I expect the readers to
read in my books something I didn't know, but I can expect it only from
those who expect to read something they didn't know'. The real
protagonist is the reader himself, "You are the absolute protagonist of
this book", Calvino says here. He is playing with the reader, teasing
him, confusing him, making him think, to interpret the situations in
different ways, and perhaps challenging the reader to put down the book,
when each story he begins ends abruptly after a few pages. Even the
title itself sounds unfinished, like most of the titles of the narrative
In one story, about kaleidoscopes, one character quotes Plotinus,
"the soul is a mirror that creates material things reflecting the ideas
of the higher reason", and continues, 'I cannot concentrate except in
the presence of reflected images...' and he uses catoptrics, (the image
forming optical system using mirrors), and he himself gets trapped in
the room he had created based on Athanasius Kircher's design, where his
image is reflected an infinite number of times. Like in ourselves there
lives all mankind who have ever lived on earth.
The book is "If on a winter's night a traveller". Calvino talks about
books in the first chapter. In a bookshop '..past thick barricades of
Books You Haven't Read, Books You Needn't Read, ...Books That If You Had
More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read,...Book You Mean To
Read But There are Others You Mean To Read First, ..." and so on.
At first glance where would a reader place "If on a winter's night a
traveller", or Calvino himself would place it among these categories, if
the novel had not been written by him? I do not know if this question
had been asked from him during his lifetime. It is said that "he was the
most-translated contemporary Italian writer at the time of his death
(1985), and a noted contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature".
I am ashamed to admit that I had not read Italo Calvino till now,
till I had picked up "If on a winter's night a traveller", at the
British Council library last week, attracted by the line from the
Guardian on the front cover, - "The greatest Italian Writer of the
This only reminds us about how little we know of the books and
writers around the world, and what little time we have available to read
at least a fraction of the great books so far written and books that are
getting published every day. The estimated annual production is over
100,000 works of long fiction, published in English around the world.
Even if we could read one book a week, we could read only 0.05% of the
new books coming out, and to do that we would have to give up reading
all the good novels we have missed up to now.
When it comes to Sinhala novels, since we get only about 200 novels
for a year, we have an opportunity to read most of them. But we could
still miss a good novel, or more than one. "If on a winter's night a
traveller" is the kind of novel we should introduce to our Sinhala
readers, translators and aspiring writers, to give them an idea of what
a variety of narratives, and narration styles can be created, and that a
novel is not just a straight forward narration of a series of incidents.
The translation by William Weaver was so interesting reading. Yet it
raised the question how good the original Italian work, 'Se una notte
d'inverno un viagiatore', could have been.
About translations Calvino talks of a Japanese firm producing new
novels based on the formulae of one protagonist or writer, Silas
Flannery, and these are 'first-class novels..if retranslated into
English, they cannot be distinguished, by any critic, from true
Could this too apply to many translations of original works today,
since almost everyone who reads a translation would not be familiar with
the original, the translator could create his own story, or characters
or situations. It leads to speculation, like Calvino suggests, what if
translations are retranslated in to the original language? Would they be
as good as the original, or could they be better and be more popular?
What if a Persian poet today retranslated Edward FitzGerald's
translation of Rubiyat, back into Persian?
This is considered a novel, but has also been called a "genre-hopping
book of short stories", or a novel "capable of endless mutations". A
novel about novels, a fiction about fiction, and Metafiction
In the novel "If on a winter's night a traveller", Calvino talks of
fake taxis, fake prisons, fake revolutionaries and fake
counterrevolutionaries. "Once the process of falsification is set in
motion, it won't stop". And in the last chapter, which has just seven
lines, is Calvino trying to tell us this is a fake novel?