BOOK REVIEW / Memories of a walk on the sunny side: 'The Road to San Giovanni' - Italo Calvino Tr. Tim Parks: Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99

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GREAT writers are rare, and even their leftovers can be enchanting. Italo Calvino was an incomparable conjuror in prose, so perhaps we should have realised, when he died in 1985, that there were further tricks up his sleeve. As it turns out, his bottom drawer is a magician's chest: fresh stories and fragments keep fluttering out, rather like one of those brilliant multi-coloured handkerchiefs being tugged out of a top hat.

First there was Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a set of lectures whose title beautifully mixed the grandiose with the throwaway; then came Under the Jaguar Sun, an incomplete sequence of stories based on the five senses - cunning parables about eating and listening and seeing. And now we have The Road to San Giovanni, five autobiographical essays that Calvino called 'exercises in memory', but which are really ruminations on the frailty of our recollections.

There is something lovely about this posthumous career, even if it only sporadically touches the mesmerising heights achieved by Calvino's more celebrated books - Invisible Cities, The Baron in the Trees, Cosmicomics, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and Mr Palomar, just to name a few. Calvino himself delighted in imagining things the wrong way up, and strove to glimpse life from unusual angles.

In one short story, 'The Distance of the Moon', he pictured the world-view of a lunar citizen: 'Seen from the earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your headdown, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.' It's a typical Calvino moment: a playful bit of fun with interstellar space and an austere commentary on the lunatic notion that everyday ideas - in this case, up and down - are fixed. In Time and the Hunter he wrote: 'I know that no sign, on the earth or in the sky, can serve me as an absolute point of reference.' His books imported the quizzical uncertainties of modern science and turned them, with a medieval attention to nature, into lyrical comedy.

The stories are half fairy-tale, and half science fiction - yet they always hum with surprising details that have their feet firmly on the ground. Gore Vidal once said: 'Fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread.' And Calvino, even in his giddiest moments, was alert to the beauty of nouns. He let himself drift into outer space for a better view of human life, and then put what he saw under a microscope. His topsy- turvy, speculative intelligence would probably have enjoyed the thought of himself as a dead but productive writer, tapping the keys of a brand-new word processor in some remote sphere only he could have imagined.

The first of the essays in the new book is a description of a walk undertaken every day by the author's father when he visits his allotment to collect the vegetables. The father is presented as an impatient force of nature: 'My father never attempted to save energy, only time: he wouldn't shirk the deeper slope if it was the shorter.' The estate is a fragile paradise teetering on the edge of oblivion, about to be swept aside by an advancing army of grey-stalked carnations grown with industrial severity.

But at the climax of the walk, Calvino's memory fails him. He fills his panniers with gorgeous food: 'The nun's thigh pears and the bunches of St Jeannet grapes, the first figs, the tough down of the chayote, the purple-

green spines of the artichokes, the cobs of sweet corn to boil and munch on, the potatoes, the tomatoes, the big bottles of milk and wine, and sometimes a spindly rabbit . . .'. And then he stops to brood: 'To my distracted eyes those baskets seemed insignificant then, as the basic materials of life always seem banal to the young, yet now that I have but a smooth sheet of white paper in their place, I struggle to fill them with name upon name, to cram them with words, and in remembering and arranging these names I spend more time than I spent gathering and arranging the things themselves, more passion - no, not true: I imagined as I set out to describe the baskets that I would reach the crowning moment of my regret, and instead nothing, what came out was a cold, predictable list . . .'

It would be easy to see this as the fond vexation of an old man frustrated by his failure to recapture the smell of his youth. But Calvino wrote these essays 30 years ago. Even the most nostalgic episode - the account of his early enthusiasm for cinema - is shaped not by a forlorn sense of lost time, but by a perplexed interest in how the past intrudes upon the present. As always, stringent philosophical concerns are pursued in homely settings; supernatural flourishes are ripened by a tender concern for human affairs.

The volume concludes with 'From the Opaque', a succinct but ambitious meditation on the way the world turns. Calvino simultaneously imagines both the sunny and the dark side of the planet, and compares this to human vision - we see all before us bathed in sunlight, but can only guess at the shadows that flit around out of sight, behind our backs. Calvino developed a reflex to explore what he couldn't see while remaining a dogged sensualist: 'In our hard life there isn't room for anything that isn't concrete.' It is hard to think of another writer (Borges, perhaps) who leaned so hard on his imagination as the only faculty worth using.

Calvino was a man who might well have amused himself by ordering his eggs opaque side up, but this persistent absorption in things he can never see is not just light- hearted. We cannot know anything, he seems to say; we cannot even remember much. We can only imagine. The essays are full of apologies for the faultiness of these souvenirs, and Calvino even refers to 'the fury that persists in these not entirely sincere pages'.

One of the essays is an equivocal memoir of a battle: 'I know that Gino had taken to wearing a different hat at the time but I can't remember now if it was a bearskin or a wool cap, or a mountain cap. I keep seeing him with that big straw hat that belongs to a memory of the previous summer. But there's no time left for imagining details . . .'

Even the past has to be invented. Calvino teases poetry out of a commonplace complaint: his memory plays its tricks, and he sits back and enjoys it. The Road to San Giovanni, as a result, hovers in an odd and moving limbo between fiction and non-fiction - either could claim it, though neither could own it entirely. But it doesn't really matter what we call it. We can only envy a writer who left fragments such as these lying around, waiting to be polished.