I’ve already written here about the late, great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, whose work I read extensively in the 1980s. I’ve wanted for some time to re-read his books and this was kick-started recently by Ali’s July Re-reads challenge. Having loved “If on a winter’s night a traveller” and “Mr. Palomar”, I decided it was time to revisit some of Calvino’s earlier works, the “Cosmicomics”.

When I read Calvino initially, the Cosmicomics stories were available in English in two volumes, “Cosmicomics” and “Time and the Hunter”. I still have both of these (somewhat battered and even slightly water-damaged, alas), but in recent years a new volume has become available, “The Complete Cosmicomics”. This gathers together all the stories published in other collections so they are all housed in one lovely volume. It seems that these little tales were something of a life’s work for Calvino, as he kept writing them throughout his career and, as mentioned in the foreword to the Complete edition, was even planning more prior to his early death in 1985.

Calvino took inspiration from a literary group he was involved in, Oulipo, who felt that literature should reflect modern scientific thought and progress. Therefore, each of the earliest short piece starts with a short paragraph outlining a scientific principle, which Calvino then goes on to translate into a wonderfully fantastic story. The narrator of most of the tales is the unpronounceable Qwfwq, a palindromic “cosmic know-it-all” who seems to have been everywhere, taken every form and is obviously an eternal.

As the stories progress, some of the later tales become more abstract, illustrating quite complex scientific theories in short story form. Towards the end Qwfwq returns, although his manner seems to have become a little more serious, as if the playfulness of the early work, a product maybe of the optimism of the sixties, is being replaced by more modern, ecological concerns.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I found myself reading these tales with a sense of wonder – they’re so beautifully written and so imaginative. The Cosmicomics are impossible to classify – they’re not exactly science fiction, not exactly fantasy, certainly not realism – they fall somewhere between every category but they’re fascinating, funny, sad and populated with some wonderful and memorable (and unpronounceable!) characters. The images they conjour up stay with you – collecting milk from the moon, living below the surface of the world, growing your own snail shell and inventing time, a word without colour. Calvino’s characters fly through space from galaxy to galaxy, witness the birth and death of stars, the beginning and end of time – some of his inventiveness leaves you breathless.

The middle tales from “Time and the Hunter”, although not so obviously dazzling, are somehow a little deeper and very thought provoking. They are perhaps a little “harder” as they’re dealing with theoretical and mathematical concepts, but they’re still very gripping and extremely clever. Many of the later, newly translated tales which feature Qwfwq are just as stunning as the earlier ones and show that there was no dimming of his talents as he aged. If anything, the increasing seriousness of the tales reflects world changes.There is a definite shift it attitude: from the optimism of the early stories, written in the first flush of the space race and the new scientific age; to the sense of disillusionment in the later tales, when all the dreams of the future had somehow remained unfulfilled.

Although I thought I’d forgotten a lot of Calvino’s work, much more of it lurked in my brain than I thought. When I read these stories before, I was expecting another “If on a winter’s night…” but now I’ve learned never to expect anything obvious from this wonderful author. His work was highly individual and singularly brilliant, and I think I appreciate a lot more on re-reading. It is fascinating to wonder what Calvino’s Cosmicomics would have made of modern society and I can only mourn his early loss and wish we still have Qwfwq to spin us tales of wonder and imagination about the scientific world around us. I can’t rate Calvino and his work highly enough – a five-star book and a five-star author!

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Further reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/13/complete-cosmicomics-italo-calvino-review

http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-07-22/books/the-complete-cosmicomics-a-holy-grail-for-italo-calvino-fans/

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