And so Marana proposes to the Sultan a stratagem prompted by the literary tradition of the Orient: he will break off his translation at the moment of greatest suspense and will start translating another novel, inserting it into the first through some rudimentary expedient; for example, a character in the first novel opens a book and starts reading. The second novel will also break off to yield to a third, which will not proceed very far before opening into a fourth, and so on .... [and] Ermes Marana appears to you as a serpent who injects his malice into the paradise of reading ... In the place of the Indian seer who tells all the novels of the world, here is a trap-novel designed by the treacherous translator with beginnings of novels that remained suspended ... just as the revolt remains suspended, while the conspirators wait in vain to begin it with their illustrious accomplice, and time weighs motionless on the flat shores of Arabia.
If you have never understood modern literary theory, you may consider what precisely there is to understand. In the last sixty-odd years, in curious coincidence with the end of the most horrific war the world (here to mean Europe, which has always thought of itself as the center of the world) has ever seen, hope in the superfluous beauty of art and its promises was forsaken. Shortly thereafter came the liberation of numerous nations from the yoke of colonialism and the repeated declaration that arts and the humanities – so casually scorned in the self-anointed center of world culture – have the same merit and dignity whatever the tradition. Eurocentrism had finally been counteracted with postcolonialism and the relativism that it did not matter who wrote what, because anyone could have written anything (the corollary to this theorem states that innumerable works of art and literature perished or were never able to be created in many former colonial states owing to oppression and bigotry). Now I in no way wish to belittle the championing of recently decolonized nations' artistic output; on the contrary, they should be encouraged and even lent added appreciation for the troubling times in which they came to be. That said, destroying the fonts of culture and artistic glory for the semblance of equality is ridiculous and proven to be ridiculous by the mass of European intellectuals who continue both to live in and deride Europe. Somehow it is easy to criticize one's government and the hypocrisy of one's neighbor towards the misery of others while sipping coffee and chewing on cake at an enchanting little bistro that just so happens to be located in one of the poshest parts of a very European capital.
Yet frauds of this type have existed since time immemorial; there is another, more serious matter at hand: the destruction of authorship. You may have heard of theorists who claim that the author is dead, that there is no real original thought, that we may put our names to our books, but these books are simply the amalgamations of countless other books that we have read over a lifetime filtered through our own experiences, precise readings, and, most scarily, our own interpretations of what those books might mean. The end result is that we are no longer the authors of our own works; we are as much their translators, epigones, and forgers as the people chastised for piggybacking on the success of well-known writers or copying their style for a lack of their own. The problem with working in such a context is that anything can be anything else; since nothing is absolute, the line on a curtain can be a highway in the desert; a barge upon the Seine can be the smile of an evil face half-shrouded in the gloam; and the floral patterns in your wallpaper can reveal the divine pattern of something unearthly. And one writer's book can simply be the shadow of another until we are enveloped by a kingdom of darkness, which is much of the premise in this famous novel.
The novel divides into twelve numbered chapters and ten incipit chapters, all of which are sufficiently vague as to underscore the need to be vague, the first being the title of the novel itself. The goal will be twofold: alternate between a reality involving a person (the Reader), a female love interest and a cast of secondary characters (including a rather bewildering scene at a fictitious university's language department) and the books that these characters happen to encounter, and repeatedly dampen the development of a full novel. Our protagonist is a Reader who begins as the traveler one winter night and slowly becomes aware of his literary mission, which he abruptly tries to derail; of course, this being a very modern novel, Calvino does not allow him much leeway. He traipses through, inter alia, the first chapters of a nouveau roman setting, a literary mystery, a novel set in Cimmeria, a work of socialist realism, a novel about a jogging professor terrified of hearing a phone ring, a novel about a billionaire who collects kaleidoscopes – all the while pursuing a woman (Ludmilla) who seems to be the ideal reader and avoiding her sister (Lotaria), who admits that, instead of reading a novel, she uses a computer program to feed her its most frequently used words in order to derive its meaning. And yet whenever our Reader seems bound to make headway in deciphering his literary world, he is again subjected to a first chapter of a new novel that someone happens to be reading, translating, or forging. The logic for such an endeavor is explained in Chapter Eight, the longest and best chapter by a certain Silas Flannery, a well-known Irish author who happens to be suffering from the inability to finish a novel:
I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object. But how could such a book be constructed? Would it break off after the first paragraph? Would the preliminaries be prolonged indefinitely? Would it set the beginning of one tale inside another, as in the Arabian Nights?
The author (ostensibly Flannery) then sets about copying some of the opening lines of this Russian novel, a project he quickly abandons owing to his need to write and not just be a "copyist [living] simultaneously in two temporal dimensions, that of reading and that of writing" – but the likening to the Thousand Nights and One Night has already met its mark. As Scheherazade's aim is to keep herself alive and instruct the murderous king on morality and art so that he might stop slaying his wives, so is the format of Calvino's novel equally preposterous: a novel that will keep rebooting and recommencing to capture the magic of the incipit and never submit to the litany of additional detail necessary for a novel to sprawl out to its full length.
Equally notable is the presence of a man called Ermes Marana. Marana appears and disappears with the ease so commonly found in thrillers about untraceable operatives and unthinkable operations. Yet by profession he is a translator, which reminds us of an old adage about translators. He convinces Flannery that Japanese translators have so perfected their renditions of Flannery's novels that they now can write their own which, once translated back into English, cannot be distinguished from the authentic ones (the point being, as it were, that there is no such thing as an "authentic novel" but only an "authorial persona" to which a work is attributed). Indeed, Marana's dream was "a literature made entirely of apocrypha, of false attributions, of imitations and counterfeits and pastiches," which is a concept first found in Borges well before any modern theorist turned it into a series of destructive (and ultimately pointless) cons. That said, there are many superb moments: in one chapter, In a network of lines that enlace, a professor is humiliated by the guilt of having been forward, or having given the impression of wanting to be forward, with one of his students, resulting in a kidnapping, extortion and the phone call that he keeps hearing as a symbol of his guilt; Flannery's diary features a wonderful sequence with a writer staring with a spyglass every morning at a reader across the way, then at another writer, then at another reader who becomes the object of both writers and their desire to mimic the other's style (a novel-length investigation of this fascinating conceit would probably turn into the type of nouveau roman that so enthralled readers in the first twenty-odd postwar years – but that is neither here nor there). Calvino's novel is painfully self-aware at times but oddly brilliant at others, refusing to endorse any particular framework apart from a suggestion that creation is an awe-inspiring feat that should not remain unrewarded. So when Flannery, who is the closest thing to Calvino's alter ego in the novel, claims that "readers are my vampires. I feel a throng of readers looking over my shoulder and seizing the words as they are set down on paper," we instinctively lean back – and then we catch ourselves. Should we really be forced to read this way, or have we always done so and just not realized it? Somehow I think we'll need more than an opening chapter to make up our minds.