Sunday, January 6, 2008

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller + Ocean Sea

You are about to read a couple of books reviews.  Both novels defy
pigeon-holing into simple, neat genres, and may make you rethink the
notion that you've "read it all before".

1. "If on a Winter's Night a Traveller" by Italo Calvino

This is one of the rare books written mainly in the second person.  What
does that mean?  Basically the author is addressing "you", the Reader,
directly, just as I did at the start of this post.  This can be a little
strange at first, but it is crucial to the structure of the novel.

The author sets the ball rolling beautifully in the opening chapter,
which can be read online at:

What follows is an intriguing story about how the Reader is frustrated
in his attempt to read the novel he thinks he's reading.  On completing
the first chapter he finds the same chapter is reprinted for the rest
of the book.  He returns it to the shop and is told that there's been a
publishing mistake, and the chapter he's just read is actually from a
completely different book.  Rather than accept a replacement copy of
the first book, the Reader wants to finish the story he started, so he
asks for a copy of the other book.

At the shop he meets the Other Reader, and we follow their shared
(mis-) adventure of reading, in succession, the first chapters of ten
distinct novels.  The causes of this are varied: misprints, plagiarism,
fraud, mistranslations, censorship, etc.  The Readers are determined to
do whatever is necessary to complete the book they started!

Don't be put off by the undeniable comments that this is an
"experimental" (or "conceptual") text.  Each of the "first chapters"
works as a story in its own right, and the narrative that ties them
together is very well done.  Overall it's one of the most creative
books I've ever read.

I first read this book about nine years ago, and at the time thought it
was an amazing piece of writing.  Reading it again, this time in the
original Italian, I found I gained even more out of it.  In some ways
this validates the author's use of the Reader as a protagonist in the
novel, since every reader brings their own unique set of experiences
and reading "history" to any book they read.  I accept that it is
probably not a book everyone will enjoy, but if you like reading a
lot and want to try something different, then this could interest you.

2. "Ocean Sea" by Alessandro Baricco

The book presents an intriguing collection of characters, whose paths
all meet at the mysterious Almayer Inn by the sea.

Plasson is a renowned painter of portraits.  He wants a new challenge:
to paint the Ocean.  But most of his attempts have resulted in an empty
canvas.  He is used to starting portraits by painting the eyes, but he's
having trouble finding the "eyes" of the sea.

Bartleboom is a professor, writing "An Encyclopedia of the Limits to be
found in Nature".  Among other things, he wants to find out where the
sea starts and where it ends.  Also, he's constantly writing letters to
the love of his life, whom he is yet to meet.  He stores the letters in
a box, and will give the box to his beloved when he finds her.

Ann Deveria is staying at the Inn in the hope that she will be cured of
her malady - adultery.  She also has a way of "seeing", that is
perceiving, the world.

Elisewin is a lifeless young girl.  Her father reluctantly accepts
advice that the sea can restore his daughter's vitality.  But the sea
might also bring about her death.

Father Pluche is a priest, entrusted with looking after Elisewin.  He's
feeling a bit lost.  He's writing a book of prayers, which so far
contains 9,502 entries.

Savigny used to be a doctor in the French Navy.  He survived a ship-
wreck, while many others perished.  His story of survival will be told
in the middle part of the book.

Adams also survived the shipwreck, and he has a rather different view
of what happened on the large raft as it drifted on the ocean after the
wreck.  Adams "has the look of an animal stalking his prey".

The middle of the book is called "The Womb of the Sea".  Comparisons
to Joseph Conrad are not unreasonable.  This part of the book is like a
mini "Heart of Darkness", wherein the many horrors of the Sea are

The third and final part of the book, "The Songs of the Return", brings
each of the stories of the main characters to an unpredictable

It's interesting that many reviews have compared Baricco's writing to
that of Calvino.  The comparison is valid: they both are very creative,
and both dare to break with convention.