It's hard not to admire the people who enjoy simple things... as long as they don't get out of touch with the reality. That seems to be the idea behind Italo Calvino's "Marcovaldo: Or the Seasons in the City," a warm little novel that shows the joys of life -- and the weird truths behind them.
Marcovaldo is an unskilled laborer in a rather dreary Italian city, with a stressed wife and a bunch of somewhat dopey kids. He also has an eye for beauty and an idealistic love of natural bounty. A stray rabbit, a blanket of snow, a peaceful park bench, a hidden stash of mushrooms, a trip to the countryside with his children, and a bus on a foggy night.
Marcovaldo revels in the natural beauty and good fortune that come to him on these occasions. Unfortunately, they aren't quite as wonderful as he thinks -- every time, something bizarre and unlucky happens to him, whether it's the noises of urban nighttime, the realities of farm work, diseased rabbits, a plane to Bombay, a minor avalanche, or a bad case of food poisoning.
Popping little idealistic dreams seems like a pretty mean-spirited thing to do. Yes, even to a fictional character like Marcovaldo. But somehow Italo Calvino's charming little book manages to be mocking and funny without being nasty about it. He's an airhead, and somewhat selfish, but amusingly and likably so.
The book is made up of little short stories, each focusing on one "season in the city," and a new problem for Marcovaldo. In a way, each amusing little story feels like a joke, with the punchline only coming at the end. For example, a walk in the fog and boarding a bus becomes a disaster, when Marcovaldo discovers that the "bus" is actually a plane heading for Bombay.
Here and there, Calvino also adds a bit of magical realism to the otherwise prosaic stories, such as one scene where Marcovaldo sneezes away every flake of snow in a large area. Even if this could never happen in the real world, his lush, almost conversational writing makes it come alive and seem plausible.
Its simple stories keep it from being among Calvino's best, but "Marcovaldo: Or the Seasons In the City" is a charming, offbeat book that takes a slightly more cynical look at idealists.
on 3 December 2010
Early Calvino. A wonderful book. Profound and observant strories, centred on a marvellous and naive man who lives in the city but who, in his head, lives in the country. Highlight: The Poisonous Rabbit, a hilarious and poignant story which sheds light on our compromised relationship with domestic animals. Brilliant. We wanted to make this story into a short film with the wonderful Streetwise Opera, but Calvino's widow refused. I gather she refuses everyone.