I have around six weeks to finish reading all the books that I bought this year. When the year ends, I want to be able to look back and say that as far as reading goes, I have been productive.
Early this year, I bought a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation). I have read a significant portion of the book but due to other hobbies demanding attention, or to life interrupting, I haven’t finished reading it even until now.
Last month, I bought Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, one of the books I’ve been planning to read for ages, and started reading it despite the unfinished Anna Karenina but then a few weeks ago, I bought another book, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. I found it an easy and enticing read. I was able to finish it in a matter of days.
If on a winter’s night a traveler is a metafiction, a story about stories. It begins with a Reader getting a defective copy of a novel (it only contains the first chapter, thus, he is unable to finish it). This sets off a perplexing series of events where the Reader ends up with only the incipits, the beginnings, of nine other stories.
Just like the protagonist, some readers of If on winter’s night… might find themselves vexed, or worse, disappointed that Calvino furnishes them with story upon story but never resolving them. But I guess that’s the point. One of the readers the protagonist encounters at the library asks, “Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?” He explains that stories of old either have two types of endings: a happily-ever-after ending or an ending in which the Hero and Heroine dies. The first ending speaks of the continuity of life, the second speaks of the finality of death. After pondering upon this, the protagonist realizes that the story wasn’t about the traveler he encountered in the first incipit nor of the other characters from the other incipits. He realizes that all along the story was about him, that he is the protagonist of his own story.
But wait, there’s more! According to Calvino, we read stories in order to escape the real world, being “at the mercy of the fortuitous, the aleatory, the random, in things and in human actions”. In stories, the variables have already been defined — an event sets the plot in motion eventually leading to a climax and finally to a denoument where all the threads are tied and matters are resolved. With real life, however, most of the variables are undefined. In fact, we worry about the future precisely because it is uncertain. Since the stories in If on winter’s night… are unresolved, it creates a sense of uneasiness because rather than allowing us to forget, it instead reminds us of the unknowable that is so prevalent in the real world.
Also, the frame narrative of If on a winter’s night… is written in the second-person perspective. At the beginning of the book, Calvino addresses the actual reader although as we continue with the story, we blend further and further into the role of the protagonist/reader-in-the-story. However, the constant use of the pronoun “you” somehow continues to remind us that we are that character. If the protagonist had an epiphany that he is a character of his own story, then we too are chracters of our own stories. Thus, If on a winter’s night… is not just ten stories, it is a collection of twelve stories: the ten incipits, that of the protagonist, and our own. The incipits remain unresolved, the protagonist’s has a sense of an ending, and our own stories continue long after we finish reading the book. Brilliant!