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If on a winter’s night a traveler February 23, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Imagine: you pick up a book with eager anticipation, only to find you are unable to read beyond the first chapter. As the second chapter begins, you realize that it introduces not the continuation of the story you have begun but an entirely new one altogether. Imagine that this goes on for the remainder of the book. How would you feel? Intrigued? Confused? Frustrated? Amused? Imagine further that this is but merely a story within a story; that you are, in fact, reading a book about people as they read (and write) such a tale. How would you react then?

That, in sum, is precisely what Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is like.

It is certainly a most inventive way of telling a story, stringing the reader along with the promise of telling one tale only to begin with a decidedly different one when things get interesting. Mind, this is no an anthology: the different directions that the book takes are but the beginnings of unrelated fictional novels as read by an unnamed protagonist. These are tied together by an overarching story involving that character’s pursuit of the conclusion to each tale. Yet more than that, If on a winter’s night a traveler may also be seen as a subtle treatise on the nature of storytelling itself, which Calvino, true to form, also injects into the very heart of the broader yarn that he spins.

As to be expected, this most unusual storytelling technique can be unsettling, and earlier chapters suffer considerably as the pieces to the overall puzzle are set in their place. In fact, the novel can be vexing at times, if not downright painful to read. But once you surrender to Calvino’s experiment it is hard not to be drawn in, to be taken for a ride, and to appreciate what a ride it is. The story comes together nicely towards the end, and when it concludes it is hard not to be charmed by If on a winter’s night a traveler.

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