Book choice for February 2011

If On A Winter's Night A Traveler [suggested by Olivia Walsby]

front cover

One definition of metafiction is "Fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction or its conventions." That could pretty much describe Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book.

A reader opens Italo Calvino's latest novel, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. But as the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he keeps running into even more books and more difficulties -- as well as the beautiful Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book.

With Ludmilla assisting him (and, he hopes, going to date him), the reader then explores obscure dead languages, publishers' shops, bizarre translators and various other obstacles. All he wants is to read an intriguing book. But he keeps stumbling into tales of murder and sorrow, annoying professors, and the occasional radical feminist -- and a strange literary conspiracy. Will he ever finish the book?

In its own way, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" is a mystery story, a satire, a romance, and a treasure hunt. Any book whose first chapter explains how you're supposed to read it has got to be a winner -- "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler." Relax. Concentrate." And so on, with Calvino gently joking and chiding the reader before actually beginning his strange little tale.

As cute as that first chapter is, it also sets the tone for this strange, funny metafictional tale, which not only inserts Calvino but the reader. That's right -- this book is written in the second person, with the reader as the main character. "You did this" and "you did that," and so on. Only a few authors are brave enough to insert the reader... especially in a novel about a novel that contains other novels. It seems like a subtle undermining of reality itself.

It's a bit disorienting when Calvino inserts chapters from the various books that "you" unearth -- including ghosts, hidden identities, Mexican duels, Japanese erotica, and others written in the required styles. Including some cultures that he made up. Upon further reading, those isolated chapters reveal themselves to be almost as intriguing as the literary hunt. Especially since each one cuts off at the most suspenseful moment -- what happens next? Nobody knows!

It all sounds hideously confusing, but Calvino's deft touch and sense of humor keep it from getting too weird. There are moments of wink-nudge comedy, as well as the occasional poke at the publishing industry. But Calvino also provides chilling moments, mildly sexy ones, and a tone of mystery hangs over the whole novel.

At times it feels like Calvino is in charge of "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler"... and at other times, it feels like "you" are the one at the wheel. Just don't put this in the stack of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First. Pure literary genius. [review by E.A.Solinas on amazon]

As you might expect, the novel has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Italo Calvino is widely written about, and the material is so ubiquitous it seems pointless to repeat it here. He has a Wikipedia page and there is also a well-stocked fan site within which you will find this page, where the website author has included the full text of Rhys Hughes' essay on Calvino, which goes into immense detail of his life, work and style.

 

Shortlisted for this month

Book selectors can bring one, two or three books for selection, although it's usual to bring three. This month, Olivia's other suggestions were:

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind

Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the 'cemetery of lost books', a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out LA SOMBRA DEL VIENTO by Julian Carax.

But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from LA SOMBRA DEL VIENTO, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax's work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.

The above taken from Zafón's English language website (see below) and of course there's a Wikipedia page too.

About the Author

Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a website, in Spanish, which if you don't read Spanish you can run through Google translate, and it will tell you:
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is one of the most widely read and recognized worldwide. He began his literary career in 1993 with The Prince of Mist (Edeb� Award), which are The Midnight Palace , The Lights of September (in one volume, The Trilogy of the Mist ) and Marina . In 2001 he published his first adult novel, The Shadow of the Wind, which soon becomes an international literary phenomenon. With The Angel's Game (2008) returns to the universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. His works have been translated into over forty languages and have won numerous awards and millions of readers on five continents.

Luckily, he also has an English language website where you might also be delighted to read his "Why I Write" notes. As always he has a Wikipedia entry.

Perfume

Sadly this choice had to be disqualified as we've already read it, back in January 2007. Check the Reviews page to find out what we thought of it.

 

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