Throwing the world out of whack

Robert Winder sifts through the posthumous fragments of the great Italian fabulist, Italo Calvino; Numbers in the Dark by Italo Calvino trans. Tim Parks Cape, pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Italo Calvino's bottom drawer is turning out to be one of the roomiest in modern literature. The sunny Italian maestro has been dead for 10 years now, but it seems to have had no effect on his publication schedule. When people say of writers that death could be a smart career move, they usually mean that it will give their reputation a twist of gravitas. But in Calvino's case it seems to have been a purely notional event. This collection of stories - some of which have previously appeared in Italian newspapers and magazines, some of which were rejected manuscripts - is the fourth volume to have been published since his death.

It is by no means his best work; it might even be his least impressive. Naturally, it is full of neat ideas and pleasant narrative manners. If it were by an unknown writer, we would be busily applauding the arrival of a singular and impressive new voice. But in the context of his already dazzling portfolio of modern classics, it can't helping looking like a sketchbook full of rough drafts - a memento for fans. Bottom-drawer publications often address a biographical interest more than a literary one - they catch great writers in their unguarded moments. In this sense, the volume shows mainly that Calvino was a canny judge of his own efforts, and knew what to leave on the back burner.

Not that it is remotely dull or uninteresting: it is just that the stories here, stray shots from a man who wrote every day of his adult life, are quiet versions of preoccupations indulged more thoroughly elsewhere. There are, for instance, a couple of stories which might easily have featured in Invisible Cities, Calvino's beautiful sequence of ruminations on the nature of civic life. Here, he proposes a town where everyone is a thief. It is a perfectly egalitarian society: every night, people go and empty someone else's house. There are exactly the right number of houses to go round, so no one returns home empty-handed.

What ruins this happy paradise is the arrival of one honest man, who stays in and reads novels when he should be breaking and entering. His honesty means that one thief is forced to go back to his burgled house empty-handed. In a stroke, he creates poverty. Others begin to imitate his example, and so the divisions between rich and poor are created. Calvino was a member of the Communist Party when he wrote this, and it is a very beguiling version of the maxim that all property is theft. All possessions, in this cheerfully imagined fairyland, are ill-gotten. The rich are merely those who selfishly lock the door on their own possessions.

In his greater books Calvino would make much of this sense of asymmetry, this idea that one minuscule shift could throw everything out of whack. Here, in the title story, an eager accountant worries away at an error in the books of a vast and ancient building company. In the end, he finds a tiny slip-up of a few hundred lire in a 17th-century ledger. It fills him with panic. This fractional mistake, he believes, has thrown everything out of kilter. The mistake has entered the system, like a lie, and been amplified by hundreds of years of compound interest. "The whole world," he cries, "is distorted by this mistake." As so often in Calvino, the world has fallen, irrevocably, from grace into bafflement.

There are many other nice ideas in this collection. There's a dizzy monologue by a man present at the birth of the universe, who remembers it all. There's a sweet memoir of Casanova in which he reflects on the complexity of his loves. And there is a nice interview with Neanderthal Man, who ruins the journalist's insistence that he is talking to the world's first man by saying the words: "My dad". And there's a political satire called "Beheading the Heads," in which the political leaders are routinely executed at the end of their term of office. Typically - this is Calvino, not Kafka - it emerges as a comedy: the politicians negotiate the arrangement down to the amputation of a finger here and there.

The whole book, indeed, is a catalogue of bright ideas. But they rarely transcend their status as anecdotes. Even the style, normally the epitome of unruffled clarity, takes a few wrong turns, "To explode or to implode," Calvino writes at the beginning of a science fiction odyssey, "that is the question." This is a pretty heavy-handed marriage between science and literature (for which the translator cannot remotely be blamed).

In his more developed work, Calvino would make art from the fusion of contrasting mentalities. Indeed, it is a tribute to the slippery and approachable nature of his genius that one of the stories here, a fiendish puzzle about computer processing and vocabulary, should have first been published in Playboy. It is nice to learn that it was intended for the avant-garde modernist magazine Oulipo. "I can't prevent the slow tentacles of my mind," Calvino writes, "advancing one hypothesis at a time, exploring labyrinths of consequence that magnetic memories would run through in a nanosecond." As Calvino's widow points out in her introduction, it was devised as "an example of ars combinatoria". I bet the Playboy readers thought it was filthy.

Comments