Sunday September 2, 2012
You, the protagonist
By ABBY WONG
Her young son chances upon two books that have our bookworm in literary ecstasy.
HOW do I tell you that these two books are exquisite? How poetic must my language become to convince you of their beauty? In what way can I implore you to explore the author’s style that, after much bending and twisting, has made the stories breathtakingly inventive? And if you for a moment scowl at yet another monologue from me on books and reading, you should, for these two books’ sake, stop. Pick up one of them and, if you’ve lost the habit of reading, your love for books will be rekindled.
Their beauty is obvious not just to my eyes. Each book has its awesomeness so indisputably visible in the first paragraphs that even a child would appreciate it. In fact, I will disclose – against his will – that it was my young son who picked these two books from a library that boasts an immense collection of wonderful foreign fiction.
With his uncanny ability to sniff out a good story by skimming the first paragraph, my son knew these books were healing books for mum, whose hectic life has reduced her to shreds that require hibernation accompanied by books to knit her back into a complete soul. And he was so right: these two books are truly effective in combating fatigue, flu and fever.
A noted contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the late Italo Calvino (1923-1985), naturally, had always struck me as a complicated writer with winding prose. But in this book that my son has chosen, Difficult Loves (1985), Calvino surprisingly uses the barest and breathtakingly simple prose yet still manages to enthral and delight with almost every story.
The opening tale, The Adventure Of A Soldier, tells of a lone soldier’s conquest of a buxom widow who chooses to sit next to him in a speeding train. Does the woman accede to such advances or it is the soldier’s plump hand that has misconstrued body contact that could have resulted from the rocking of the train? By using as few characters and props as possible, Calvino tells seemingly simple stories in which Illusion and reality collide with a dash of nuttiness, leaving the reader no other means to infer but to accept his forceful implication.
In the end, hence, I end up agreeing that the plump hand, as any plump hand, is the only guilty party. How absurd, but I am thankful that the hand gropes around much later than in the first paragraph lest my young son had hurled the book away in disgust and abandoned it for another.
It is no coincidence that my son was attracted by the unconventionally interesting first paragraph of the second book, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1982). I, too, was by mesmerised by it, by how forceful and uncompromising it is. It is Calvino again, “You are about to read Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” My young son must have thought this constructive advice for his sick mother little knowing that the book had been one of her required texts in college.
If the novel has aged, it has aged better than I because it is still, presumably, required reading for most college students, and still a popular book to be purchased as a birthday present for one main reason: Calvino’s splendid intelligence and inventiveness in turning the reader into the book’s protagonist.
The unnamed You (who is also you, the reader) begins to read If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, but 30 pages later the novel turns into another story, a little-known work by another author. “You’s” search for the unfinished novel leads to a succession of many others, as if the entire book is a Chinese treasure book inside which lie endless tales. In the end, “You” wonders how the original story ends. But does it matter? Ultimately, all stories end the same way: either with the continuity of life and the hero and heroine getting married, or the inevitability of death and the hero and heroine dying. At that realisation, “You” decides to marry one of the female protagonists, Ludmilla, to avoid death. What about you, the real reader?
These two remarkable books will lead you to many other stories ranging from adventure, erotica, and romance, to satire, war, and fantasy. As Calvino said, “Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.” With these two books, you might not know where you are going to be, but every destination you reach will be reached more than satisfactorily.
And if you want a good laugh, read Adventure Of A Reader in Difficult Loves where lovemaking becomes hilariously difficult when you let reading get in the way.
> Abby Wong thanks her young son for borrowing these two wonderful books that turn her into You the protagonist over and over again in innumerable stories.