Numbers In The Dark by Italo Calvino – a short story collection review by M.G. Harris (#9 on the ZERO MOMENT blog tour)
Here’s a secret – I prefer short stories to novels. One of my favourite authors – Jorge Luis Borges – never even wrote a novel. Another – Italo Calvino – wrote mainly short stories, novellas and an experimental novel or two which were mainly connected short stories.
Calvino’s ‘Numbers In The Dark’ (1995) represents a dense collection of his short stories. It runs the gamut of his differing, distinctive styles: the Italian neo-realist tale, the intellectual illustration, the cosmicomic.
His early life as a resistance fighter against the Nazis informs the rural Italian idyllic settings of some early stories, like ‘Conscience’, ‘Wind in a City’, ‘Love Far From Home’. In ‘Good For Nothing’ a stranger quietly admonishes a man who can’t properly tie his own shoelaces. I often use this as an example how simple, practical knowledge can be lost within a generation. What would happen, Calvino asks, if the flood came and one needed a Noah? “Not so much a just man as a man able to bring along the few things it would take to start again… it seems people have to hold each other by the hand like the blind man and the lame who can’t go anywhere without each other, but argue just the same. It means if the Flood comes we’ll all die together.”
Well, Nobel-prize-winning author Jose Saramago said as much in ‘Blindness’ – it took him a novel.
In these early stories of Calvino’s, sly humour hovers in the background of these narratives on post-war life, storytelling combines with apparent whimsy. Characters try to grasp their realities but the machineries of modern life often leave them grabbing at the air.
The narrative is driven by an idea, an intellectual core around which he muses. Later stories embed more deeply in such a core. Like many literary authors whose stories didn’t have an adventurous element at the heart of the narrative, Calvino was never classified as sci-fi. Nevertheless, from the 1960s his stories included speculative fictions set in imagined fantastic societies.
‘World Memory’ is an early speculation on the information society – if all of humanity’s achievements can be boiled down to information, how much more dangerous when a lie is introduced. ‘Beheading the Heads’ is a social satire – the extremity of a democratic process which actually executes its leaders at the end of the term, the better to keep them honest.
Two of my favourite stories are from the section of ‘tales and dialogues’ ‘Neanderthal Man’, ‘Montezuma’.
In these stories the character is interviewed, magazine style, given a chance to explain and justify their life. Modern attitudes and prejudices clash with history.
Montezuma admits that he acceded to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, that he saw an insurmountable chasm between two civilisations, one which believed in progress (European) and one which believed in equilibrium (Aztec). But he suggests that although defeated by Cortes, “What I was remained forever beyond his imagining, unattainable. His reasoning never managed to trap my reasoning in its net.”
(Calvino’s ‘Montezuma’ gave me more insight to the Conquista (which interests me, as a Mexican national), than most history books I’ve read!)
‘Neanderthal Man’ reminds me of a favourite Asimov tale – ‘The Ugly Little Boy’. This time Neander enthusiastically tells it how it is; bear killing, bead-necklace-making, tool-carving and all – to a patronising modern interviewer.
Whether he’s weaving a narrative around life in a post-peak-oil petrol shortage, musing on the modern miracle of indoor plumbing and the intertwining of love relationships and the telephone, Calvino always surprises and stimulates.
In part it’s his language, always a good reason to read translated works. People who don’t think in English have a way of constructing sentences that always sounds fresh to a native speaker.
But even now, when Calvino’s influence has been felt for decades on writers like David Mitchell, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, when he’s credited for pioneering the micro-chapter and the flash fiction, his writing has a vitality that is hard to match.
Ursula le Guin wrote that Calvino was “ahead of his time in so many ways that only now, 25 years after his death, is his work widely perceived not as marginal because it is fantasy, but as a landmark in fiction, the work of a master.”
I wouldn’t presume to improve on the words of the mighty Ursula (May She Live Forever)! In my own way, I have paid tribute to Italo Calvino too – the title of ZERO MOMENT is taken from a Calvino quotation that Joshua finds in an antiquarian book – words which resounds heavily with Josh’s newly discovered ability to travel in time.
“I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts bring with it consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it…”
There’s one other way in which Calvino is honoured in The Joshua Files. It’s very secret though, maybe the biggest secret of the series. Don’t try to guess in public please! If you think you know, email me at contactmg [at] mgharris.net