Book Review: If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino
If On A Winter's Night A Traveler
A Book Review by William Horner
You have just stumbled upon this review for If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino by William Horner. You have never heard of the book in question, or you have, the title like an unfinished beginning-sentence; you want an idea of what it is about before you spend around eleven dollars on a book that could be started in earnest, only to get through the first few pages, like so many other books on your shelf, on your floor, in your bathroom atop the toilet, on the bedside table. And the reviewer keeps referring to you, as if the directness they present is just exhibitionism, thinking that they know you as well as the person who recommended the book to you, or as well as you know yourself, or as well as the book’s author knows you. . . . Okay, I’m done with that, but it was only an example of what half of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is like. Italo Calvino’s book is a self-referential, post-modern journey in where a reader explores the tangential meanings in literature and its possibly apocryphal intentions, the authenticity of stories and their imposition of meaning, and of what is true and what is not.
The “Reader,” as the main character is called, finds If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino among “acres of the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written.” Calvino presents this character constantly in the second person, which can be jarring for some readers; the way the author pulls this off is ingenious, either through observation of himself or other readers and how we as readers act when in this meditative-like state. Once the Reader is given a comfortable moment to put his feet up and read his new book, he realizes that he is not reading who he thought was Calvino, but another entirely different book. Realizing the printer’s mistake, he returns to the bookshop and runs into a woman, Ludmilla, or the Other Reader, who has received another defective copy. They are promised that their new copies are the genuine things written by another author, only to realize that, again there is a defect in the print, the beginning of a whole new story.
They then fall into this journey of finding the original copy, the true story in bindings filled with falsities. They go to professors of extinct languages, critics, publishers, writers, other readers, non-readers, alien-scouting book cults, censors, et cetera, until they begin to follow the trail of Ermes Marana, the plagiarizing translator of the stories between the numbered chapters. Calvino winds up and down in an effort to make connections within the stories themselves, often times relying on leitmotif, certain aspects of the stories intertwining amongst themselves and the lives of the Readers.
Ultimately, this meta-book asks the reader (yes, you, the one reading this review and hopefully the book itself) whether the book, any book, is a repetition of stories since time immemorial, the difference of, as the cultists put it, what passes through a writer from a UFO, a higher being, or what a writer in the book, Silas Flannery, assumes is what passes through the reader and their “mental circuits,” the influence of the dualistic or the dialectic, the immaculate or the artifice. This relationship between the reader and writer and vice-versa is what becomes the books spine, pun sort of intended, where the meaning of everything comes from. While tackling this notion, there also arises the idea of an artificial intelligence imposing meaning by creating literature based off of the data that it is given, i.e. which author a publishing firm wishes to put into the computer. It is a striking resemblance to today’s problems of, not just the auto-artificial revolution that is coming to be, but the spreading of fake news that can easily be mistaken as true (Pizzagate 2016). We begin to question what is truly genuine, what in a post-truth society is real and what is fake, since, especially in our social climate today, it can be difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.
This book is not for everyone; it is at times confusing, what with the constant beginnings of stories and the polarizing second-person narrative. I tend to stay away from the “you” form because not everyone experiences the same thing, let alone the same life, but Calvino generalizes the reader in such a way that you are not just engaged with the “You” character, but with yourself and how you find subjective meaning within in the pages, within the sentences, within the thing you can’t quite grasp or say but understand on the most innate level. It is, to paraphrase Calvino, a book that fills you with sudden, inexplicable curiosity, not easily justified.