This will be the most meta book that you have ever read, I can guarantee that right now….
You are the hero of this story. You have picked up a book that you’ve been meaning to read for a while, you get comfy and read the first chapter. Except this isn’t the book that you wanted to read. It’s a completely different book. What begins as a simple quest to find a good book will become a journey which will span countries, genres, philosophies and the very idea of fiction itself.
I do believe that this is the first book which I’ve reviewed that I have to thank my degree for introducing me to. It’s a very odd and out of left field choice – even for a module on European post-modern fiction – but I’m glad that the choice was made. Let’s start with the structure: The chapters alternate, one being a present tense ongoing plot starring “you” in quest of a good book, the other being the first chapter of a book that “you”‘ve found on your quest; each representing a different genre and style, – thrillers, period pieces, westerns and so on. And every. Single. Time you’re just getting into the new story it breaks away to the next chapter about “you,” as “you” discover that there is no chapter two, or circumstances in the main narrative render reading it further an impossibility. This is a stroke of genius on the part of Calvino, as you are put into exactly the same state of enjoyable frustration as “you.” I would still love to get my hands on the rest of the western novel, even though I am fully aware that it doesn’t exist.
The characters in the story of “you” start as reasonable and realistic, and become increasingly anarchic as the narrative does. They operate on a kind of internal logic that Douglas Adams would have to co-operate with Franz Kafka to achieve, and yet makes a weird kind of sense in its own way. Even “you” are not immune, as “you” get pulled into the story and end up a very different “you” from the one who simply wished to sit down and read a book. It’s through these characters and the crazy journey that you go on that traditional notions of character function and ideas of what literature is for get questioned. Look out for the sister of the woman “you” fancy, she teaches literature at university level in spite of never reading any of the books, instead choosing to run them through a machine which tells her the most frequently occurring words – which she then bases her analysis on. Want to know the scary and hilarious thing there, children? I’ve read essays by genuine academics based on this approach.
If you like Welcome to Night Vale and your stories fast and tight, with a healthy does of surrealist irreverence then I highly recommend If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, as it is a very compelling, and very funny, novel which is tour de force of both writing a translation. The ending, for instance, is one of the most satisfying I’ve read in a long time. However, literary navel-gazing isn’t for everyone and I can understand why some of my class avoided writing about this thing like it was dirty laundry in the corner, but it would still make a very good gift for a literary-minded friend you dearly wish to frustrate.