martedì 23 giugno 2015

Experiments, cards, and the machinery of narration

Italo Calvino
by Olga Lenczewska



In the late 1960’s and throughout all of 1970’s, Italo Calvino lived in Paris and belonged to a French group of experimental writers called Oulipo. Influenced by its founders, George Perec and Raymon Queneau, who played an important role in the development of the ever-growing structuralism movement, as well as Roland Barthes, whose seminars he attended, Calvino eagerly participated in the creation of new, combinatory, labyrinth-like and reader-oriented literature.

In a lecture entitled “Cybernetics and Ghosts”, Calvino explicitly expressed his fascination with structuralism and semiotics as well as more specific problems within these fields, such as: the importance of the author, the role of the reader, the construction of a narrative, the multiplicity of interpretative possibilities. This focus on the relation of words to each other as well as the relation of words to their meanings had been first analysed by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, who claimed that our use of language is central to our understanding of the worlds and the events in it, emphasising that it is the very relation of concepts to each other that create the meaning of every one of them by means of “differential relations”. The natural consequence of this observation was the fact that one can only understand a given word or concept if one is familiar with all other elements of the same “system”, that is, in the context of other elements which together constitute a system of communication and conceptual understanding: language. Because literature is created primarily by means of language, the meaning one reads into a text depends heavily on these “differential relations” – not only between single words and concepts, but also between more complex elements that constitute a book, such as single stories, chapters, characters, types of narration, and so on.

Let’s look at how Calvino’s literary experiments in his book “Il castello dei destini incrociati” contributed to the creation of a new type of literature which came from the structuralist movement. “Il castello dei destini incrociati” consists of two quite distinct parts: “Il castello dei destini incrociati” and “La taverna dei destini incrociati”. The two parts are composed in a similar way, both telling stories of different protagonists with a use of a deck of Tarot cards, but the settings and the decks are different in each of the halves, and so are the variations in the cards’ order. The action of both parts takes place in an obscure place and features characters who have just met. All of them have suddenly lost their power of speech and thus struggle to tell the others what has happened to them. Once presented with a deck of Tarot cards, one by one they decide to use it as a means of communication which therefore from now on happens by symbols and images, not words. The narrator, himself a participant in the gathering, attempts to understand the stories they tell (or perhaps interpret them, as we are never sure whether his description is right).

The very idea for the book’s composition came from Paolo Fabbri, who in 1968 delivered a lecture that Calvino attended. However, already in one of his previous works, “Il cavaliere inesistente”, Calvino begins to explore the idea of pictorial, non-linguistic story-telling. Some critics have, in fact, compared “Il castello dei destini incrociati”, to a giant card game, in which both the protagonists and the readers participate. In the book’s first part, the physical arrangements of the cards right before the narrative begins is such that the stories of all the protagonists are reflected by a series of cards, either read horizontally or vertically, either forwards or backwards, which sums up to a total of twelve stories. In the second part of the book the cards are not read sequentially, but in a rather random order.

One of the experiments Calvino put to test in his book was that of narrative units and various ways of combining them. In “Il castello dei destini incrociati”, by constructing different stories on the basis of various order of the Tarot cards, Calvino attempted to prove that a narrative is able to be reduced to a finite number of elements or meaning that can be combined in a infinite number of ways, resulting in infinite narrative solutions. Moreover, by providing the Tarot cards decks on the margins of “Il castello dei destini incrociati”, Calvino ensured that his text would be self-referential. The cards are used as a narrative combinational machine, as the meaning of each of them strictly depends of the card that preceded it and that will follow it. The cards, in reality, have no real existence until given meaning by a player or, in this case, a reader of Calvino’s book, and such meaning can differ, depending on the card’s place in the deck and the story. For example, in the first story of the first part of the book, a card called Strength that depicts a man that beats an animal signifies a knight in a forest who was trapped by a brigand, whereas in the fifth chapter the same cards means an African invasion on Catalonia.

In “Il castello dei destini incrociati” the cards, as units of the system of communication and at the same elements of the story, only gain genuine meaning in relation to each other, as every preceding and following card influences each other. Calvino subverts language, challenging the meaning of its elements, showing us through the use of cards that even if the elements of the communicative system remain the same, their reading and interpretation can constantly change if the relations between the elements change, and so all kinds of stories and meanings can be found the our world, too.

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