Imaginary homelands essa.., p.25

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 25


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  The Baron in the Trees is the story of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, who refuses to eat the repellent snail soup prepared by his sister Battista (who also cooks ‘some pâté toast, really exquisite, of rats’ livers;… and some grasshoppers’ claws, … laid on an open tart in a mosaic; and pigs’ tails roasted as if they were little cakes’), is ordered from the table by his crusty father, climbs a tree at the age of twelve and never sets foot on solid ground for the rest of his life. His affair with the capricious Viola, his adventures with the local bandits, his encounter with a group of exiled Spanish grandees and his meticulous strategies for making a successful life in the trees twine and intertwine to form thick forests of marvellous ideas, and make The Baron in the Trees one of the most haunting images of rebellion, of determined nay-saying, that exists in the literature of this rebellious century.

  In The Baron, and in the third book in the trilogy, The Non-Existent Knight, Calvino is also getting interested in narration as a process. To continue with my presentation of last sentences, here is The Baron’s:

  Ombrosa no longer exists … perhaps it was … embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after page, swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots and gaps, bursting at times into clear big berries, coagulating at others into piles of tiny starry seeds, then twisting away, forking off, surrounding buds of phrases with frameworks of leaves and clouds, then interweaving again, and so running on and on and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless cluster of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.

  The Non-Existent Knight, which is the story of an empty suit of armour that thinks it’s a knight of the Emperor Charlemagne and keeps itself/himself going by sheer willpower, discipline and devotion to duty, is also a very ‘narrated’ tale, told by Sister Theodora, a nun locked up in a convent, who can have no possible experience, as she is very well aware, of the scenes of chivalry she is required to describe. As she says: ‘Apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasions, sacking, rape and pestilence … what can a poor nun know of the world?’

  And yet, heroically, she writes on and on, inventing the unknown and making it seem truer than the truth, and providing Calvino with a marvellous metaphor for himself. This growing preoccupation with the Book as opposed to the World will come to its true fruition in If on a winter’s night a traveller.

  ‘World conditions were still confused in the era when this took place,’ writes Theodora/Calvino. ‘It was not rare then to find names and thoughts and forms and institutions that corresponded to nothing in existence. But at the same time the world was pullulating with objects and capacities and persons who lacked any name or distinguishing mark. It was a period when the will and determination to exist, to leave a trace … was not wholly used up.’ But six years later, Calvino published a collection of stories about an even more fluid time. The twelve Cosmicomics take, for their modest theme, nothing more or less than the creation of the universe, as narrated by a polymorphous, immortal being masquerading under the muffled, spluttering title of Qfwfq. In the Cosmicomics, we discover that the Moon was, in fact, made of cheese: ‘Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed … through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, moulds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue.’ (Like all fabulists, Calvino loves lists.) We see the galaxies form, we see life crawl out of the waters of the earth; but the miracle of these stories is that somehow Calvino gives it all a richly comic, human scale. In The Aquatic Uncle’, for instance, Qfwfq and his family have just ‘abandoned aquatic life for terrestrial,’ and Qfwfq is in love with a fellow-land creature. But: ‘Yes, we had a great-uncle who was a fish, on my paternal grandmother’s side, to be precise, of the Coelacanthus family of the Devonian period’; and this Uncle N’ba N’ga obstinately refuses to give up his watery life. What’s more, when an embarrassed Qfwfq is forced by his loved one to introduce her to his stubbornly primitive relative, the aquatic uncle seduces her back into the water.

  What do you do when you’ve just reinvented the world? What Calvino did was to turn himself into Marco Polo and go travelling in it. Invisible Cities is not really a novel at all, but a sort of fugue on the nature of the City. Polo and Kublai Khan are the only attempts at ‘characters’ in this book; but its true star is Calvino’s descriptive prose. Gore Vidal has called this Calvino’s ‘most beautiful work’, and so it is.

  Here the reader may discover Octavia, a city hung like a spider’s web between two mountains: ‘The life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.’ And Aria, which ‘has earth instead of air.’ And Thekla, the eternally unfinished city, for which the star-filled sky is the blueprint, and whose completion is eternally delayed ‘so that its destruction cannot begin.’

  Next, Calvino turned himself into two packs of Tarot cards and used them as the bases of the stories in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the only one of his books which succeeds in being too clever to like. Travellers meet by chance, in the first part, in a castle and in the second, in a tavern, and fall miraculously dumb, so that they are obliged to tell their travellers’ tales by laying out the Tarot cards. Calvino uses these card-sequences as text which he then interprets for us, telling us the stories which the cards may or may not be intending to tell: a form, I suppose, of mystical structuralism.

  If on a winter’s night a traveller, however, is a book to praise without buts. This is Calvino rampant in the world of books, Calvino joyously playing with the possibilities of fiction, of story-telling, which is, after all, also a nursery euphemism for lying; You, the Reader, is (or are) a sort of dogged Lemmy Caution figure trying to find Your way through the literary labyrinths of Calvino’s city of words, his Alphabetaville.

  You buy ‘the new Calvino’. You begin reading a story called ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’. (I note that an ‘l’ has fallen out of this last word in its journey from the dustjacket.) The story is a thriller set at a train station. But suddenly You have to stop reading: there is a binding error in Your copy. You take it back to the bookshop and find that the story You began wasn’t the new Calvino at all. The wrong pages, the bookseller tells You, were bound between the wrong covers. What You started (and now want to finish) was Outside the town of Malbork by one Tazio Bazakbal. You, and Your new friend Ludmilla, who has had the same problem with her copy of the Calvino, go off to read this second book. But it turns out to be an entirely different story, some kind of rural novel, and then another binding mistake is discovered just when You’re getting interested: blank pages have been bound in by mistake. You ring Ludmilla, speak first to her sister Lotaria, eventually to this girl in whom You have become very interested indeed. You find that what you believed to be Outside the town of Malbork is in fact (another publisher’s cock-up) a part of an old book written in Cimmerian, the language of an extinct East European culture. You go off to Professor Uzzi-Tuzii at the University and he tells You the original was called Leaning from a steep slope. Painfully, he begins to translate for you. Then he gets more and more fluent as the story weaves its spell. It is, of course, a completely different story, nothing to do with Malbork, about a young man of excessive soulfulness who gets caught up in a prison escape plot. Suddenly Uzzi-Tuzii stops reading. He tells You that the author, Ukko Ahti, committed suicide after reaching this point in the story. But now Lotaria appears with one Galligani, Professor of Erulo-Altaic languages. Galligani, an enemy of Uzzi-Tuzii’s, claims that Leaning from a steep slope is in fact derived from a Cimbrian original, Without fear of wind or vertigo, by Vorts Viljandi.

  Without fear, etc., turns out to be yet another, and c
ompletely unrelated work, about spies and counterspies in a city in the throes of a coup. But again, only a fragment remains, because Lotaria has given away most of the pages.

  Two things need to be said right away: first, that all the fragments are wonderfully readable, and somehow don’t seem fragmentary at all; second, that You, the Reader, have been getting less and less peripheral, and Your involvement with Ludmilla and Lotaria more and more important.

  You now cease to be merely a passive reader. You act. You go to the publishers themselves, determined to find a copy of Without fear of wind or vertigo, which is what you now want to continue with. Here you meet Mr Cavedagna, who speaks, for the first time, the ominous name of Ermes Marana, translator, who has apparently been passing off as Polish, Cimmerian, Cimbrian what is actually a Belgian novel, Looks down in the gathering shadow, by Bertrand Vandervelde. You go off to read this new book, which inevitably bears no relationship to any of the other fragments you’ve seen, but is so exciting that it doesn’t matter. Looks down … is a sort of film noir spoof, about a crook and his moll trying to get rid of a body in a plastic bag. You (the real you this time) will probably agree with You (not the real …) and Ludmilla that this is the most gripping thing you’ve read yet. But this, too, breaks off … Cavedagna hasn’t lent You the whole typescript. You return to see him. ‘Ah,’ he tells You, ‘Heaven knows where it’s got to.’

  Now, in despair, Cavedagna shows You the file on Ermes Marana, who has managed to throw the entire affairs of this publishing house into turmoil … and, because I don’t want to give away the whole plot, I will content myself with telling you that there are five more extracts from stories, and that the story of You, Ludmilla and Lotaria now becomes deeply embroiled in the fictions You are trying to read.

  If on a winter’s night a traveller is quite possibly the most complicated book you (and You, too) will ever read. But Calvino’s conjuring trick works because he makes the complications so funny, and makes you (though not You) share the joke. The ten transformations of the eternally beginning story are carried off with an inventiveness that never becomes tiresome; the gradual inweaving of the texts and their readers is nothing less than—to use an appropriately archaic piece of slang—wizard. Calvino has left Stevenson far behind; he has avoided sounding like imitation Borges, which is what happens to him when he isn’t on peak form; and his great gift, the ability to give credibility to the most extravagant of his inventions, has never been more in evidence. In If …, the most outrageous fiction about fiction ever conceived, we stumble in every paragraph over nuggets of hard, irreducible truth:

  ‘Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do,’ Arkadian Porphyrich says. ‘What statistic allows one to identify the nations where literature enjoys true consideration better than the sums appropriated for controlling it and suppressing it?’

  Why, finally, should we bother with a Calvino, a word-juggler, a fantasist? What does it mean to write about nonexistent knights, or the formation of the moon, or how a reader reads, while the neutron bomb gets the go-ahead in Washington, and plans are made to station germ-warfare weaponry in Europe? Not escapism, because although the reader of Italo Calvino will be taken further out of himself than most readers, he will also discover that the experience is not a flight from, but an enrichment of himself. No, the reason why Calvino is such an indispensable writer is precisely that he tells us, joyfully, wickedly, that there are things in the world worth loving as well as hating; and that such things exist in people, too. I can think of no finer writer to have beside me while Italy explodes, while Britain burns, while the world ends.



  The most appealing account of the Big Bang I’ve ever read was written by Italo Calvino in his marvellous Cosmicomics. In the beginning, we’re told by Calvino’s narrator, the proto-being Qfwfq, ‘Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were … it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability.’ Then a certain Mrs Ph(i)Nk0 cried out, ‘Oh, if only I had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!’ And at once—bam!—there it was: spacetime, the cosmos. Room.

  The idea that the universe might have been set in motion by the first truly generous impulse, the first expression of love, is rather wonderful, but it’s certainly unscientific, and these days the creation of Creation is primarily the work of scientific, rather than literary or theological, imaginations. It’s a hot story, and Professor Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, is only the latest of a string of popularizing bestsellers on the subject—fascinating books, full of exclamations.

  To read this rapidly expanding universe of books is to come to see physicists as a highly exclamatory breed, longing above all for the moment when they get to cry ‘Eureka!’ It’s tempting to use a variant of the anthropic principle (the world is what it is because were it otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe that it was so) and propose that it’s not surprising that such persons should have created a cosmos that begins with the biggest exclamation of them all.

  Let us quickly concede, however, that there have been many astonishing discoveries, many genuine Eureka-opportunities, since Einstein’s General Relativity Theory changed the world. Professor Hawking, striking a fine balance between the need to address himself to non-scientists and the danger of condescending over-simplification, takes us for a canter over the territory. Here is General Relativity itself, and Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe. Over there is the defeat of the Steady-state Theory by the Big-Bangers, and to the right (or maybe to the left) is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Just ahead are the great voyages into the heart of the atom, and out towards the black holes.

  Hawking’s near-legendary status confers immense authority on the text. Not only is he the fellow who showed that black holes leak, but it was his 1970 paper that ‘proved’ that the universe must have begun as a singularity, that is, a thing not unlike Calvino’s single point. But the reason that this book gets steadily more engrossing as it approaches the heart of the subject is that it turns out that on the question of Genesis, the Professor has changed his mind. Having applied the ideas of quantum mechanics—the study of the frequently irrational world of infinitely tiny things—to the condition of the universe before the Bang, he has decided that the singularity whose existence he ‘proved’ in 1970 needn’t really have existed at all.

  He now proposes that instead of a ‘beginning’ there was what Richard Feynman called a ‘sum over histories’—a situation in which time was indistinguishable from directions in space, making redundant the concept of something out of nothing, of before and after. If this were so, he tells us, ‘the universe … would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.’ It’s a dazzling argument, ending with the dismissal of God himself: ‘What place, then, for a creator?’ Man proposes, God is disposed of; and Hawking is, as he makes clear, making no more than a proposal, a theory about a theory which he thinks will soon be worked out.

  He is prepared, however, to draw an astonishing conclusion from his survey of his field. He suggests that we’re actually quite near the end of ‘humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe.’ There’s a good chance, apparently, that a complete unified theory of everything will be found ‘within the lifetime of some of us who are around today, always presuming we don’t blow ourselves up first.’

  This sounds, I’m afraid, like a particularly bad case of Premature Eurekitis. Anyone who has followed Professor Hawking through his own changes of mind; who has learned, through him, the implications of the Uncertainty Principle (‘one certainly cannot predict future events exactly if one cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely’) or who has even the most rudimentary awareness of the history of human knowledge, will find this notion of the proximity of the Ultimate Truth hard to swallow.

  And, anyway, to all of us who aren’t scient
ists—who are lay readers, or even writers—the real value of the ideas of the new physics and of quantum mechanics is precisely the same as that of Calvino’s stories: namely, that they make it possible for us to dream new dreams, of ourselves as well as the universe.

  It is impossible, however, not to admire the grand Quixotic conviction of Stephen Hawking’s quest for the end of knowledge; while continuing to believe that the only permanent discoveries are those of the imagination. All theories eventually pass away, and are replaced by new ones; only Mrs Ph(i)Nk0 lives for ever.



  Compared to the might of a State, especially a State as ruthless as the Soviet Union has been for most of this century, it is easy to think of the individual as a ridiculously weak, even helpless entity. Even when the individual in question is as distinguished and influential a scientist as Andrei Sakharov, he can be scooped up out of his life, the way the KGB seized Sakharov after he criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and hurled on to the garbage heap of history, in this case the remote town of Gorky.

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