BOOK REVIEW / Life's lemon skins: The road to San Giovanni by Italo Calvino, trs Tim Parks: Cape pounds 12.99

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The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of years ago I met a writer in Mexico City who told me how he had narrowly escaped death in an earthquake. 'I'll never forget that day,' he said, '19 November 1985, the day Calvino died.' Calvino's death was of cosmic significance, yet his name hasn't joined Kafka's in the linguistic firmament. I propose a new adjective, calvinoid - as in a calvinoid construct, an impossible and beautiful structure spun out of the detritus of the quotidian.

The word should convey both the scientific precision of his imagination and his carnivalesque delight in irony and absurdity. The Scottish echo (of Calvin) is a happy coincidence; like Borges, that other great favolista, Calvino admired Robert Louis Stevenson. However, he reserved his greatest praise for Galileo. But Galileo was a scientist] Of course, said Calvino, but he imposed his way of looking at the world not through the power of revelation but through literary skill: 'His language combines exactitude, freedom and lightness.' Calvino could have been describing his own prose.

A wonderful fragment, 'Glaciation', is the paradigmatic calvinoid construct. It starts as an ordinary tale of seduction. A man and a woman are in an apartment. The man offers whisky. The woman requests ice. The man retires to the kitchen where he experiences a series of comic misadventures, while meditating on the ingredients. Civilisation depends upon solar energy, he reasons, which is accumulated in grains of malt, and subsequently released as alcohol. Its enemy is ice. And so, thinks the man, as he carries back the drinks, 'in the bottom of the glass the sun fights again its war with ice'. Unfortunately the man has been so long fixing the drinks that a new ice age has begun in the interim. He returns to find his partner naked, but cut off by an iceberg. In the compass of 1,500 words Calvino has not only retold the history of the world but also described the frosty gulf that isolates one human being from another.

This latest Calvino, five autobiographical essays collected by his wife, contains a priceless calvinoid construct. 'La Poubelle Agreee' opens with a mocking description of Calvino's only household talent, 'taking out the rubbish'. The meditation progresses from the domestic to the civic, and thence to the cosmic. The disposal of garbage is a ceremonial act of purification, ridding us of the 'squeezed lemon of living'. If one is what one does not throw away, as he puts it, then the choice between what to keep and what to cast off becomes vitally important.

At last Calvino touches on the act of writing itself, which turns out to be yet another variation on the theme of possession and dispossession. The discarded drafts of 'La Poubelle Agreee' and the thing itself, once published, become analogous to the lemon rind; discarded objects no longer part of the self.

The division between the self and the other gives the book its unifying theme. It is personified, in the title piece, by the author and his father. Calvino's childhood was spent in a house between the city and the country. The boy's eyes were always turned towards the city, whereas the father's only passion was the family estate at San Giovanni. Every other day Calvino (alternating with his brother) dutifully walked to the farm with his father. Neither spoke, for the minds of both were elsewhere; the one already on the land, the other lost in the city. It was a struggle Calvino never really resolved: 'Every morning of my life is still the morning when it's my turn to go with Father to San Giovanni.' And yet father and son were not so very different; they merely cast their insatiable curiosities in opposite directions, the one dedicated to the minute examination of flora, the other to the codification of fantasy.

The possibility of a reconciliation or, better, a dynamic friction, is mooted in the last piece, 'From the Opaque', in which the two polarities are abstracted as the opaque and the sunny. Although drawn to the latter, Calvino recognises that he is actually situated 'in the depths of the opaque' and that, in writing, he is 'reconstructing the map of a sunniness that is only an unverifiable postulate'. His legacy is an atlas full of calvinoid constructs, invisible cities, that will dazzle the lucky explorer.

(Photograph omitted)