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Customer Review

on 2 May 2001
In The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino has attempted to blur the distinction between word and image. The setting is a castle that is also a tavern, hidden somewhere deep in the midst of a thick forest. Lost travellers who seek refuge there discover that the forest has robbed them of the power of speech. Seated around a table on which lies a pack of tarot cards, the travellers realise that they can use the pictures on them to relate their adventures. What follows is a complex and clever intertwining of a score of stories, each story overlapping with others, forming a mesh of cards that can be read in a myriad ways. It was Calvino's absurd intention to conjure up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck; a "diabolical idea" that obsessed him for years. He spent whole weeks re-arranging cards into ever more elaborate patterns, some of them taking on a third dimension, growing into cubes and polyhedrons, to the extent that (as he later confessed) he became completely lost in them. Within the random sequences of cards, he recognised various well-known tales and legends: the stories of Faust, Hamlet, Oedipus, Parsifal, De Sade's Justine. In the first part of the book, it is the tales of 'Roland Crazed with Love' and 'Astolpho on the Moon', both taken from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, that form the central axes of the grid upon which all the other stories depend. When read backward, each tale is transformed into something new. For instance, the tale of 'Astolpho' becomes that of 'Helen Of Troy' and the tale of the 'Ingrate' becomes that of the 'Man Who Slew Death'. The new tales that Calvino penned to complete the mosaic share insights with the older fables. Morbid elements abound, partly due to the fact that the key cards in the tales are often the violent ones of the Major Arcana -- Death, the Devil, the Tower of Destruction, the Hanged Man. Although the symbols remain the same, it is the context of a card among its fellows that makes each interpretation unique. When the Graverobber places the Ten Of Cups next to the Last Judgement it is to indicate that he had ascended to a great height and was viewing the cemetery (with its cup-like urns) from above, whereas in another tale the same card could indicate a feast or an alchemist's apparatus. The second part of the book is even more complex than the first. Here, the castle that is also a tavern has become a tavern that is also a castle, and the guests seated at the table in front of the tarot pack have grown impatient. Rather than waiting for each traveller to recount a tale one at a time, the guests attempt to tell all of them simultaneously. The result is a disconcertingly abstract tangram, a jumble of images that attempts to impose form on chaos and ends with the homogenised form of chaos itself. As for the substance of the actual stories, The Tavern of Crossed Destinies shows greater depth than its predecessor. The themes are always fantastic, sometimes horrific, even surreal. There are vampires, ghosts, demons, battles with magical armies and duels with mystic warriors, earthquakes, plagues, trips to the moon, odd sexual encounters, pacts with the devil, zombies, cities in the sky, robots and parallel dimensions. In one tale, women take revenge on men, slaughtering or castrating them before taking over the world. The narrator of this debatable nightmare is told that "no man is spared... only a few, chosen as drones for the hive, are granted a reprieve, but they can expect even more atrocious tortures to quell any desire of boasting." Calvino's dry wit and penchant for the ironic should preclude any hint of insanity on his part, but there is no denying that this is a neurotic book. The first part, The Castle, was originally published in 1969; the second part, The Tavern, followed in 1973. As if realising the dangers that lay ahead, Calvino abandoned his scheme for a third part, The Motel of Crossed Destinies. Instead, he turned to completing his strangest book, Invisible Cities, which was simply an attempt to describe every facet of every imaginary city while in reality only describing one. It is yet to be determined whether Calvino is still the only author willing to write books which, by all the laws of fiction, should not exist...
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