Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Marvellous Monday Book Group: 27th June 2011

In many ways, Italo Calvino's
Castle of Crossed Destinies is
a perfect book group read. The
premise is intriguing: in a nod
to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales,
travellers meet up at a castle
but find they have lost the
power of speech. Only a pack
of Tarot cards can help them communicate their stories. As the cards are laid upon the table, a matrix of stories is created. The cards take on different meanings depending on the start and end points used in the grid. Stories are read upwards, downwards and across. The book contains helpful illustrations of the two sets of Medieval Tarot cards that Calvino used to devise the stories. So far, so intriguing, but I'll come out up front and say: "Not everyone enjoyed it". There was a strong sense that Calvino's experiment was for his own rather than the reader's benefit and the narrator is functional in the way in which he interprets the cards laid down by his fellow travellers. Often the reader feels passive rather than engrossed. The book feels like a technical exercise.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies is divided into two distinct sections. In the first, Calvino sticks rigidly to the idea that each additional tale must fit perfectly into the tableau of cards on the table. As a result, some of the stories feel 'forced' and some of the group found that the interpretations Calvino places upon the cards are too convoluted. There were inexplicable historical anomalies: computers and skyscrapers mingled with knights and sorcerors. On the other hand, a couple of people found that when Calvino made imaginative use of the actual images, the results were fascinating: crossed swords become a forest of intertwined brances for example - or cups take on the appearance of a cemetery viewed from above.

Pervading it all was the sense that we were reading something formulaic....but if some of the stories felt familiar, it is because Calvino (particularly in the second half of the book) has mined folk tales, myths, classics and great literature - and this is perhaps where the 'enjoyment' factor of the book plays second fiddle to the sorts of ideas Calvino's experiment throws up: 'What makes a good story?'; 'Are there any new stories or simply a re-ordering of standard events?'; 'Why does the reader become engaged in some and not others?'

And then that leads to some even bigger questions: how important is language in conveying meaning? Is Calvino's obsession with creating a working tableau of stories bording on pyschotic? Are his travellers sane or locked in some form of madness? Do we disregard each others stories all the time and is it significant that the second half of the book is set in a tavern, where strangers convene, swap stories, dissipate and promptly forget much of the conversation?

If Calvino had made his narrator a character with which the reader could identify, and had written his stories with careful consideration of style, pace and meaning then we would not have had the same discussion about the nuts and bolts of communication and storytelling. What a conundrum - as I said, a great book group read.

Next up is Grahame Greene's Travels With My Aunt on Monday 8th August at 6:45pm. Expect characters fully in control of their powers of speech!

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