if-on-a-winters-night-a-traveller“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.”

It’s been an interesting weekend in the UK. The news at the moment seems to be constantly full of very big, important stories, so my attention hasn’t been entirely on books. Hence, this short book has taken me longer to read than usual because of hours spent in front of news reports, as well as the book itself being incredibly dense. Anyway, this isn’t a political platform, so on with the business of reviewing fiction.

The novel begins with you, the Reader, settling down with a new novel, getting comfortable and telling the people in the room next door to turn down the television, and so on. You embark on the novel but discover a printing error; after thirty pages, it begins to repeat. Annoyed, you take it back to the shop to get a new copy, only to find that you haven’t even been reading If on a winter’s night a traveller, but instead Outside the town of Malbork which was in the wrong cover. You ask for that instead, return home, start reading, but find that this book is nothing at all like the one you just started.

This book becomes blank pages just as you’re getting into it, so you must return to the shop again, where you find the intriguing Ludmilla who is having the same problem. As you desperately try to finish the book, again and again you find yourself given copies of a novel that is nothing like the last and ends just when the story gets going. You are sent on a wild adventure where you must struggle with the police, who may or may not be undercover revolutionaries, your feelings for Ludmilla, and a conspiracy of faked literature. If you manage to keep anything straight in this book, then good luck to you.

What a novel. It’s so postmodern that it’s basically eaten itself. I really love the idea, as it really is a bunch of unrelated opening chapters interspersed with an increasingly confusing narrative, but I just couldn’t get into it very well. There’s not much dialogue, and paragraphs are generally huge and unwieldy. The use of the second person is an unusual choice, but you’re soon reminded why it doesn’t get used much, and doesn’t help when the “you” in question changes for certain chapters. It probably also doesn’t help that I read the last twenty or so pages after drinking, so they washed over me.

I don’t really know what to say about this book. Obviously it’s a modern classic, and it’s really interesting and it probably is very smart, but I’m just not smart enough to compete. The way in which each novel is stopped is quite good fun and they work as ideas, but I had real issues with trying to keep the narrative and the unrelated chapters straight in my head. You might have better luck with it, but Calvino has bested me, well and truly.