If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979)

by Italo Calvino

If you expect a novel to follow a form like most novels you’ve read, and you’d be disappointed otherwise, you’d better not pick up If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Italo Calvino’s book is what’s called postmodern (it plays with form and convention) and metafiction (it forces readers to pay attention to the fact that they’re reading). It is ultimately more about ideas than plot and characters.

It is also awfully ingenious. Calvino demonstrates great virtuosity in weaving his main narrative in between 10 opening chapters of different novels of widely varied genres. The Reader, whom Calvino addresses in the second person (i.e., you), starts out trying to read Italo Calvino’s If on a  Winter’s Night a Traveler and finds that his book has only the first chapter. When he returns to the bookstore for a complete book, he is given yet another book — a different book — with only a first chapter. He meets the Other Reader, who is there for the same reason. And so it goes for the Reader and the Other Reader as they are left hanging by nine more opening chapters. In the intervening chapters, the search for an explanation takes the Reader on an increasingly bizarre global quest involving a collapsing publishing company, a fraudulent translator, aliens, revolutionaries, and repressive authorities.

Ultimately it seems that If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is about reading: You, the Reader, are induced to think about what you might have taken for granted. Why do you like to read? What do you read? How do you read? Whether you ultimately are wowed or frustrated by it, Calvino’s clever concoction could be worth reading just to get you thinking about such questions.


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