If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino

Don’t ask me what this novel is about, Reader, for my interpretation will differ from yours. But if you are the kind of reader who would prefer to be lost in a maze of beautiful words, do embrace it; I guarantee that you’ll be enchanted. But let me warn you, Reader, not to look for a traditional plot-driven story here, for that’s not the intention of Calvino: He is a post-modernist who loves to experiment. Maybe you are beginning to get some idea now what kind of a novel this would be, Reader. If not anything, it’s an experimental novel. I hope this revelation will not dampen your enthusiasm.

Now, let me be of some assistance here, to help you navigate through this novel without getting completely lost in its interlaced maze. I hope my voluntary offer of assistance, to give you a helping hand here, will not offend your self-assurance, Reader. Now and then, one reader’s perspective on a complicated piece of literature may ease your own path through it. But if you are the egoistic reader, like the reader in Calvino’s novel, please ignore what I’m about to say here; go ahead and form your own opinion!

For you who is willing to listen, Reader, I’d say that this work is the weirdest that I have come across in my literary journey. I’ve read experimental novels before, but nothing quite like this. Calvino begins his novel by introducing an ordinary reader who goes to a bookstore to pick up his latest work – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. He buys the book; reads it; finds it’s incomplete with only the first chapter. He goes back to the bookstore to inform them of this error, and there learn that due to an error in binding, several copies of two different books have been mixed up. The bookshop replaces your errored copy with a new one, only that the new copy is a completely different story. The ordinary reader meets another reader in this ensuing mess, and together, as well as independently, they try to find the “one book” that they want to read, which is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Does this sound confusing? Let me try to simplify it. When you read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, what you do read is two readers’ quest to find a complete version of a book that they have begun to read, and the first chapters of several novels that they come across in their quest. I truly hope this revelation will spark your interest, Reader, as it did mine, when I figured it out.

That’s all I can say about the structure. But if you are interested in learning more, I’d love to share some of my own views here with you. From what I have already shared, it is understood that this novel is not a plot-driven story. What Calvino does here is to challenge reader’s expectation of a traditional straightforward plot. Calvino believed in no perfect style of writing a novel, nor he believed that a story should have a completion or a structural accuracy. The reason may be his need for cohesion in reality and fiction. In real life, often our stories are incomplete, and we are disappointed in them. And why not we have the same in fiction? Why write fantastical stories of complete endings and traditional happily ever afters, when they, more times than one, are mere illusions? Calvino creates stories within stories, entangling us in a complicated web just like in real life. And through all these complications, he points to us that there is after all only one story, which is the continuation of previously told stories.

When you have finally finished reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Reader, you will understand that the climax of the story is not its orthodox ending (for despite Calvino’s protestations against tradition, he has thought fit to find refuge in an orthodox ending), but the disclosure that when you connect the titles of the unfinished stories, a coherent paragraph is born, of which either the literary or philosophical interpretation according to your subjective preference, will elucidate the meaning of the novel that you’ve been searching for. The dawning comprehension will leave you in awe, Reader, and you’ll certainly agree that Calvino is a genius of his time.

The novel hypnotized me, Reader. If, however, you conclude that it is nonsensical, be it; I’ll still say that I was thoroughly captivated by Calvino’s beautiful nonsense. His words enthralled me. This is not an easy reading experience, but not daunting either, for Calvino has adopted a playful style. Yet, if you care to pay attention, Reader, you won’t miss on the deeply running philosophical thoughts of Calvino which are truly thought-provoking.

I hope now I have imparted to you enough information on If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Reader; it is time for you to embark on the journey, yourself. Good luck and Godspeed! I hope you’ll find it enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.