If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler / Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino has a long string of books to his credit. This novel was my first introduction to his work. Cuban born and raised in Italy, Calvino died in 1985 at the age of sixty-one. During his lifetime, he gained international fame as a gifted storyteller.  If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is considered my many to be his greatest achievement. And for me, it certainly lived up to the hype.

While some might consider it a bizarre novel, and overly clever, I found it to be an engaging read from the first page to the last. What makes it unique is the ingenious format. Within the novel, Calvino weaves ten pastiches. The story features two main characters, The Reader and the Other Reader. When The Reader begins a new novel by Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler), he discovers his copy is corrupted. Returning it, he finds the book is actually by another author and is given a replacement copy. But this book proves to be an entirely different novel. And so his chase is on to solve the mystery of this printing error. In the end, The Reader is lead to ten different novels, each of which is taken from him prematurely, just when the story has begun to captive The Reader (and this reader, too).

Each of The Reader’s novels has a different structure: pulp noir, movie script, spaghetti western, mystery story, spy thriller, and so on. Pieced together, they form a labyrinth that captivated my attention entirely. These stories, although featuring different narrators, are certainly entwined. Broadly speaking, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler deals with the difficulties of writing and the solitary nature of reading. It also creatively shows how, for those who love to read, one story bleeds into the next, suggesting that every book shares a common inspiration. Wrapped inside all of this, Calvino even managed to weave a love story, as male (The Reader) and female (the Other Reader) court through a shared interest in reading.

Critics have described Calvino as a postmodern writer and a magical realist. Knowing this, I feared that If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler might be a difficult read, and too academic for my taste. I was wrong on both counts. One would think that a book that interrupts each of its stories at a moment of suspense would make for a frustrating read. Instead, in Calvino’s capable hands, it charms, entertains, challenges, and delights “the reader” all the more.

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