16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 2 November 2001
This volume consists of a triptych of fantasy novellas which are self-contained but share common concerns. Under the guise of tall stories that wouldn't disgrace Baron Munchausen, Italo Calvino draws some subtle morals about wholeness and responsibility. The first story, 'The Cloven Viscount' is a wondrous tale of physical and moral doubling that bears comparison with the great Döppelganger stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann, R. L. Stevenson and Dostoevsky. The Viscount Medardo is cloven vertically by a Turkish cannon-ball and returns in two separate halves to his native village. Each half has taken on one part of the original Medardo's moral personality and the result is a dual between good and evil, with the Viscount's subjects caught in the cross-fire of kind deeds and random cruelties. The Viscount learns painfully that two halves definitely do not make a whole. 'Baron in the Trees' tells the story of Baron Cosimo, who makes a youthful vow not to come down from the tree where he is sitting and then sticks to his word with complete fidelity for the rest of his life. Gradually, he builds a life in the trees - becoming a kind of Robinson Crusoe in his own garden. From his place in the tree-tops, the Baron fights, observes and intrigues with his grounded family and neighbours, gradually learning to be in, but not of, the world around him. The final story, 'The Non-Existent Knight,' is a romance of the days of Charlemagne and tells of the curious knight, Agilulf, who is just a highly polished suit of armour. Kept going only by his unswerving devotion to his king, Agilulf has an abundance of courage, fortitude and patience but unfortunately lacks existence. Can only a half a man ever do duty for the whole or must even the most unswerving courage find there are tasks it cannot perform? In all three stories, Calvino unobtrusively constructs a world of detail and incident, each of which reflects the real world in all its complexities but filtered through a deeply serious kind of playfulness. While his work bears comparison with that of Primo Levi or Jorge Luis Borges, Calvino was an entire original and these stories show him at his best.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Every single one of Calvino's works are radically different from one another, and this is made no more aparent here. The three stories, The Cloven Viscount, Baron in The Trees and The Invisible Knight, all differ massively. The Baron in the trees is a tale of a boy who lived upon tree branches for his whole life, The Cloven Viscount relates how a man is cut in two yet his two halves survive, one evil the other good, and The Invisible Knight tells the story of a knight who is non-existant, and defined only by an empty suit of armour. Of course, each story is told in its own way: The Baron in The Trees is narrated by the protagonist's brother, The Invisible Knight is a third person narration, and The Cloven Viscount is told in a style reminiscent of a fairy tale.
The story that stands out the most of the three, is The Baron in The Trees. Cut of from the other two, since it lacks in magic realism, it is a beautifully told tale of love and defiance.
'Our Ancestors' is a collection of three longish short stories - or short novellas - with a medieval, fairy-tale like theme. The three were all written at separate times and can stand alone as stories, having no concrete link with each other, apart from Calvino's writing style. It's a fascinating and original book, and one that can be read for the sake of enjoying the writing, rather than the plot or characters. Calvino writes so fantastically, he is one of the few writers that I can enjoy regardless of whether the plot is interesting or the characters sympathetic.
The central story, 'The Baron in the Trees' is by far the longest, and the title is self-explanatory - a young nobleman decides to spend his life in the treetops. In many ways I found this the least engaging of the stories, although it is interesting, probably becase of its length. My favourite is the first, the 'Cloven Viscount', which is the best paced and plotted. The final story, 'The Non-Existent Knight', has some of the best passages of writing and most interesting characters, but the pacing is odd.
These are stories which can be read on several 'levels' - and I'm sure could be chewed over at great length by scholars of literature or reading groups. The blurb describes them as 'morality tales' - rather like fables - and certainly each story contains some potentially very deep themes. However, they can also be read and enjoyed on a more simple level as good pieces of writing with an Arthurian type setting.
Overall, the book was enjoyable for it's writing and for it's unusual style. However, I didn't find it overall engaging or gripping enough to rate it higher than three stars. Calvino is a great writer and I feel slightly ashamed in not rating it higher - as though it's a reflection of some lack of intellect on my part - but in all honesty I do like a bit more plot and character development. However I would recommend it as worth reading to anyone who likes literary fiction or is interested in studying writing.