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If on a winter';s night
on 28 December 2005
One definition of metafiction is "Fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction or its conventions." That could pretty much describe Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book.
A reader opens Italo Calvino's latest novel, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller," only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. But as the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he keeps running into even more books and more difficulties -- as well as the beautiful Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book.
With Ludmilla assisting him (and, he hopes, going to date him), the reader then explores obscure dead languages, publishers' shops, bizarre translators and various other obstacles. All he wants is to read an intriguing book. But he keeps stumbling into tales of murder and sorrow, annoying professors, and the occasional radical feminist -- and a strange literary conspiracy. Will he ever finish the book?
In its own way, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" is a mystery story, a satire, a romance, and a treasure hunt. Any book whose first chapter explains how you're supposed to read it has got to be a winner -- "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler." Relax. Concentrate." And so on, with Calvino gently joking and chiding the reader before actually beginning his strange little tale.
As cute as that first chapter is, it also sets the tone for this strange, funny metafictional tale, which not only inserts Calvino but the reader. That's right -- this book is written in the second person, with the reader as the main character. "You did this" and "you did that," and so on. Only a few authors are brave enough to insert the reader... especially in a novel about a novel that contains other novels. It seems like a subtle undermining of reality itself.
It's a bit disorienting when Calvino inserts chapters from the various books that "you" unearth -- including ghosts, hidden identities, Mexican duels, Japanese erotica, and others written in the required styles. Including some cultures that he made up. Upon further reading, those isolated chapters reveal themselves to be almost as intriguing as the literary hunt. Especially since each one cuts off at the most suspenseful moment -- what happens next? Nobody knows!
It all sounds hideously confusing, but Calvino's deft touch and sense of humor keep it from getting too weird. There are moments of wink-nudge comedy, as well as the occasional poke at the publishing industry. But Calvino also provides chilling moments, mildly sexy ones, and a tone of mystery hangs over the whole novel.
At times it feels like Calvino is in charge of "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler"... and at other times, it feels like "you" are the one at the wheel. Just don't put this in the stack of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First. Pure literary genius.