Written by Italo Calvino and first published in 1979, If on a winter’s night a traveler (Ioawnat, here on out) can be categorized as a postmodernist work, which I think means it was self-aware in being a piece of literature. As such, the book does a couple of kooky things, such as narrating in the second person (you maybe have read some books like this before, or maybe you haven’t) and featuring a plot that is about reading.
I picked up this book as a recommendation, and had no idea what it was about, except it was a book about reading a book. I slugged through it these past couple of months, and while it did take me a while to get through it, it was interesting in a few respects. Disclaimer: I understand this book is sometimes placed on the reading list of post-secondary English courses; this review is interested in Ioawnat solely as a piece of fictional entertainment.
A Story about Stories
The premise of the book is a reader who is trying to track down the ending of stories, because for some inexplicable reason he keeps coming across books that only tell the beginning of a story, and cut off at a climax. My favourite thing about this novel are these beginnings. I envy the author’s ingenuity for creating a plot where he can start stories without needing to finish them (a veritable writer’s paradise, eh?). The unfinished stories were varied and highly interesting, most of them even more engaging than the main plot of the novel (call me a pervert, but “On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon” was my favourite), and does Calvino much credit by demonstrating his skill in the craft of storytelling. These short preludes are likely to hook you immediately, despite being unrelated to one another and featuring completely different characters and settings each time.
Reading a translation, some parts stuck out as being oddly phrased, but I’m sure this is due to the difference between the Italian and English languages, rather than Calvino’s own quirkiness. Much of the prose is beautiful and invokes not only images but thoughts as well. Maybe it’s a characteristic of European narrative, but the novel felt personal and intimate, or maybe it’s because most of the novel was addressing me directly, in the second person. Either way, Ioawnat offers a quaint and cozy reading experience as a result.
As it is now 2016, Ioawnat is thirty-seven years old, and it shows. The setting of the book is still relevant, since independent book stores and publishers still exist, and the language is both modern and readable, but there is something about this book that feels decidedly old fashioned, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, the main plot was relatively simple, and by story’s end I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take from it. The story of a couple of readers tracking down the source of the unfinished books was neat, and the ending features a discourse on the various reasons people read (which seemed arbitrary and preachy), but other than that it didn’t feel like Ioawnat mattered. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by this.
A book matters to me when I feel like I gained something from reading it. Maybe it makes me think of an issue I never thought about before, or got me to think about in another way. Maybe it triggers my imagination with new worlds and new ideas, and the imagery was so vivid that it left a lasting impression on my mind. In short, a book that matters is a book that affects, and Ioawnat simply does not reach this gold standard, but that isn’t a knock against it. Very few books are capable of affecting a general readership in the same way Shakespeare, Hugo, or even Tolkein’s stories have.
It may be the case Calvino was writing about issues relevant in 1979, or maybe the literary scene was ripe for Calvino’s style and mode of writing. Perhaps this is what makes Ioawnat stand out as something that does not belong in 2016, or the immortal library of literature’s greats, because what it wants to say feels confined to a certain period of thinking and artistic expression that was brief and minimally affecting.
Despite being a “postmodernist” work, Ioawnat doesn’t read like it’s propagating some political or artistic agenda. It seems sincere in its storytelling (in that it only wants to tell a story), and does some pretty neat things throughout. This is the reason I trudged through it, because even if a story isn’t a page-turner or overly ambitious, I can still respect it if its priority is still just to tell a story.
For casual readers, I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for something creative and light. It’s a short book, and features a simple plot. Perfect as a bedside read, but don’t expect to be taken away by it, especially if you’re reading it in 2016.
This has been a gamobo review.