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Wednesday, 7 December 2011



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 subconscious mind.

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 chapters.

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 twentieth century'.

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 Flannerys.'

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?



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