June 6, 2014

If on a winter's night a traveler

by Italo Calvino

Whenever I finish reading a book, I would usually write a few sentences to encapsulate the feelings that it evoked in me, with a promise of a more comprehensive write-up to follow. Here’s what I wrote right after I finished reading If on a winter’s night a traveler:

There are a million things running around inside my head after reading this book – a million ideas on top of a million more – waiting to be expressed... all of them bad.

Not touching another Calvino book in the very near future. Not if I can help it.

Now I actually have Under The Jaguar Sun on my shelf, a copy I bought on a whim on one of my trips to my favorite bargain book store. This was before I read If on a winter’s night a traveler, see. And now that I’ve read the latter book, I’m not too keen on picking up Jaguar Sun anytime soon. Or anytime in the distant future. Or anytime at all.

My smile is for the birthday celebrator, not Calvino. Reading the first few chapters, here.

From the get-go, If on a winter’s night a traveler promised to be a very confusing and complicated read. The first chapter read like someone’s introduction or foreword of your usual book; it read something like, “You are about to read Italo Calvino’s latest masterpiece, so I suggest you do this or perhaps, you can do that etc. etc.” I nearly skipped the entire section had I not realized that there was a certain pattern to the chapters: every numerical chapter (“1”) is followed by a chapter with a proper title (“If on a winter’s night a traveler”), and then a numerical chapter follows again (“2”) and so on. Not to be deterred by the initial confusion planted by the first chapter, I plowed on.


To be blunt about it, I didn’t like this book, and I would not recommend it to anyone. I did give it two stars, which are primarily for the fact that I enjoyed a couple of stories – yes, this book is about stories within a story, the kind of metafiction I am not new or alien to, having read Margaret Atwood's Blind Assassin some years back. Each story is supposed to be separate and distinct from the others, on the premise that it was written by a different fictional writer, but it was not all that convincing. The stories all had the same tone and style; they did not have distinct voices to suggest that they were written not by the same person, but by several fictional novelists. It was a total let-down because had the stories been markedly distinctive from the others in the manner in which they were written, my reading experience would have been so much better.

The writing did not contribute all that much to the appeal of the book, either. I don’t know about other readers, but I’m not a fan of big, heavy words – you know, the kind of words that makes you doubt the richness of your vocabulary – and I’m not especially fond of combining those huge words with confusing plots. For me, that’s a disastrous venture – does the writer mean to entertain the reader, or bleed him dry? If my book club had not chosen this as book for the month, I would have been sorely tempted to chuck it right away.

If on a winter’s night a traveler is a confounding, tedious, and gimmicky book. If the author had intended to classify the different kinds of readers, which is what this book is really about, he could have simply written an article or an essay on the subject. Instead, the entire exercise turned out all wrong. I don’t want to think that the time I spent reading this book wasn’t worthwhile, but it feels like that. And then there’s the part near the end where the chapter titles are combined to make a decent sentence – that was the last straw. That was too contrived, too forced, too gimmicky that my eyes couldn’t stop rolling. Seriously?

Rating: ★★
Book Details: Trade paperback, pre-loved copy from Buddy, given as a Christmas gift (Thank You!)


Anonymous said...

And the connected titles sounded like a run-on. Me not like this either. Not reading another Calvino, not if I can help it.

Monique said...

BUDDY: Let's not!

Tin said...

"Bleed him dry" Lol! That bad huh? Going all GoT on Calvino. Hahaha. :)