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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 5 (1998)
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Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories
by Italo Calvino

(1996 Vintage, translated by Tim Parks)

Review by Joe Cadora
Copyright 1997 Joe Cardola

For the reader unfamiliar with Italo Calvino, Numbers in the Dark offers an almost painless entree into the full range of his work, comprising as it does thirty-seven stories, fables, and fantastic interviews which range his career from beginning to end. And it is in short form that Calvino is most accessible, where his intellectual flights of fancy will not put off or lose the casual reader as can sometimes happen in his longer works.

Calvino has most often been compared to the other major modern fantasists; Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and Franz Kafka. Borges' work, his ficciones, as he calls them, are intellectual labyrinths which draw on his erudition as much as his literary skill while Garcia-Marquez' magical realism aims to turn the mundane into the miraculous and vice versa. But it is Kafka who has really put his stamp on this century, and it may well be Calvino who puts his mark on the next. Combining the intellect and curiosity of Borges, the magical qualities of Garcia-Marquez, and the surreal atmosphere of Kafka, Calvino has created a literature with, arguably, a broader range than any of the others, and more than the others he is rooted in the post-modern world, having come of age fighting against the Nazis with the partisans in his native Italy.

The comparison with Kafka bears examination. The Czech writer's protagonist is a victim, a patient pawn of an incomprehensible and bureaucratic world. Calvino's world is equally incomprehensible, but his hero is a bomb thrower, not a victim, even if his weapons are stink bombs rather than dynamite. In his world it is the great and powerful who are helpless, as portrayed here in "Beheading the Heads," the story of a society where the leaders are ritually executed after their term. Calvino showcases the futility of power: his authorities are liars and fools, his armies end up confused, begging directions in "The Lost Regiment," or coopted by their own curiosity in "A General in the Library."

The early stories in this collection show some of the warmth of the 1959 work, The Baron in the Trees. From the absurd comedy of "The Man Who Shouted Teresa" to the cartoon-like fable, "Solidarity," Calvino's humor is always sharper when he steers clear of abstractions. "In The Workshop Hen," probably the best of these early pieces, Calvino takes a poke at modern industrial society, portraying a worker more robotic than Karel Capek's (or Chaplins in Modern Times, for that matter) and capitalists so ignorant and paranoid that they execute a hen as an industrial spy. Calvino's curiosity is never ending. "In The Black Sheep" he demonstrates with perfect logic how an honest man corrupts and destroys a society based on larceny. "In Like a Flight of Ducks" war is seen through the eyes of a mentally retarded man, and we realize that his viewpoint is more realistic and rational than those of the generals and politicians pursuing the conflict:

Then he thought about why those men down there were firing at him, shouting at him, falling under his shots. And he understood that they were men like him, beaten by their fathers as children, set to work by farmers, mocked by orderlies, and now they were taking it out on him.

There are frequent surprises here. "In Love Far from Home" we get a sense of early feminist consciousness in Calvino's writing. His women seem to see things more clearly than men, and he writes of a Great Matriarchy where the history of humankind flowed as simply as that of plants until the conceit of the drones: a rebellion, and we had civilization.

Unlike many other fantasists, Calvino has written some non-fiction guideposts for exploring his and other fiction. His The Uses of Literature (1980, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch) offers essays which key the reader in to Calvino's unique literary sensibilities. Whether positing a machine which can produce literature or promoting the cartoon as the ultimate cinematic art, his insights are always fascinating. His obsession with the computer may yet earn him recognition as a prophet of the Information Age. As early as 1958, Calvino was building stories around the computer. His wife, Esther, writes that in 1973, as a response to a somewhat vague request from IBM, Italo was exploring how far it was possible to write a story using the computer. He carried out the painstaking operations himself, she reports, there being limited access to mainframe time in Paris where they were living.

It is in the story which names this collection that Calvino's take on the Information Age becomes clear. Numbers in the Dark starts out as a sumptuously written tale with Calvino telling of light opening in soft cones beneath the punctual street lights. The central figure here is Paulino, a boy who helps his mother, a cleaning woman, by emptying ashtrays in a large office building at night. Paulino is enthralled by the little mysteries he finds; secret lovers hiding in a dark office, the huge Board of Directors table so shiny you can see your face in it, and the curious old accountant who slaves over his ledgers far into the night. It is the old man who takes Paulino past the room full of punch cards and computer hardware and down into a secret, basement cell. In this dark netherworld he shows the boy an ancient, leather bound volume where one error entered into the company records in the remote past will forever prevent the expensive and imposing machines from being correct:

... a stupid mistake of four hundred and ten lire.... And nobody realized, only I know about it, and youre the first person Ive told: keep it to yourself and dont forget! And then, even if you did go around telling people, youre only a boy and no one would believe you.

Over all these years, you know what that mistake ... has become? Billions! Billions! Half the city is built on these mistakes! Half the country!

In fact, Calvino's world is prefaced on the idea of this one mistake: his version of original sin. No matter how we try we can never set the sums right, we can never ultimately know reality past the little games which we play in our own minds. Given this state of affairs, it is only from the quotidian that the heroic can emerge. Calvino raises the ordinary to heroic proportions while reducing the powerful to pathos. This turnabout might be used by Marxists to claim him as one of their own, but he is no Marxist, not by any stretch of the imagination. In The Uses of Literature he states clearly that it just plain wrong for literature to claim to voice a truth already possessed by politics.

The middle stories in Numbers in the Dark were written during the period which culminated with his experimental novel, If on a Winters Night a Traveler, a work which may well be his masterpiece. They partake of the same quest to find a new relationship between author and reader. Calvino has himself stated that the author is of less importance than either his work or its audience. His assertion that good literature may someday be produced by a machine, but that a human reader, with all the primeval memories of the race, is necessary to give the work transcendence, is consistent with his notion that fable precedes myth. The storyteller may be mechanical, and for this reason many fables fail to transcend the ordinary, but every once in a while the tale takes the reader into a place where the taboos must be reordered, and here the fable ascends to mythic status.

The taboo broken in "World Memory" is journalistic integrity--which term may well be the oxymoron of our times. A firm has been charged with loading the entirety of human history into a computer for posterity. But the memories are not honest: they are fudged insofar as they touch the lives of the archivists. Who is the reader and who is the author here? Calvino seems to tease. In the aforementioned "Beheading the Heads," the taboo is our inherent reverence for authority. We catch snippets of the Kennedy assassination, the fall of Nixon over Watergate, the Clinton presidency, where the head of state is almost like a duck in a shooting gallery, waiting to be brought down for the price of a kewpie doll. "That's what power is," one character explains, "no more than advance notice of the blade hissing through the air."

"The Burning of the Abominable House," written in 1973, shows Calvino rising to new heights. The story is really a twisted murder mystery in which an insurance agent has calculated the deaths of some of his customers in such a devilishly clever way that the company will never have to pay off. The computer technician who is charged with analyzing the tragedy ultimately arrives at the answer to the mystery, but can take no action without becoming accomplice to the crime. In "The Petrol Pump," written during the mid-seventies oil crisis, the act of running out of gas becomes almost a sickness unto death, an existential nightmare: the dwindling reserves of oil more like a precious bodily fluid than a fuel.

Calvino calls some of the later pieces Impossible Interviews, and the one entitled "Neanderthal Man" is the most fascinating. The primitive cave dweller seems naive and rather limited at first. But it slowly dawns on the reader that Neanderthal Man has a much firmer grasp of reality than the interviewer, who keeps pushing the dialog towards generalization and what we would call today sound bites. The cave man, on the other hand, is specific and precise in his use of language. As he tells the interviewer: "The bear is where I see the bear...if I don't see it, it's not there." "Montezuma" reveals a similarly obtuse interviewer and a surprisingly structuralist Aztec ruler. In this, Calvino's critique of both Euro-centrists and their cultural revisionist foes, Montezuma states:

You feel the need to classify everything new with the names of your gods... you are never sure whether those gods are real gods or evil spirits, and you are quick to become their prisoners.

"Before You Say Hello" is a sad comment on the age of mass media. In it the phone system becomes not the medium, but the message itself: factotum of a civilization which has little to say and a million ways to say it. "The Other Eurydice," in which a resplendently chthonic Pluto attempts to deconstruct the Orpheus myth, may be Calvino's gloss on Nietzsche's doctrine of eternal recurrence. As Orpheus steals Eurydice back to the surface, the world is revealed as the layers of an onion. The order of things with which Calvino admits fascination in his essays, is reversed time and time again, just as the magnetic poles reverse over geologic time.

Perhaps the piece which reveals Calvino's late period most is "Henry Ford," which was originally conceived as a television screenplay but never produced. It could well have been the inspiration for Michael Moore's 1982 film, Roger and Me. The great industrialist awkwardly attempts to manipulate his own image while the images projected behind him show the world which he and his methods have wrought. Ford is presented with paradox after paradox by the interviewer--one in particular points out that his assembly line was so admired by Lenin and Stalin that they used it as a model for Soviet communism. Ford remains undaunted, insisting that he wished only to spread freedom when what he actually spread was enslavement to the almighty commute. "The Last Channel" also partakes of this paradoxical quality, being as it is a tale of channel surfing which could as well have been about surfing the World Wide Web. The protagonist sits in a semi-catatonic state, flipping channels endlessly, convinced that there is a last channel somewhere where information relevant to him-- his story --will be seen. When this fails to work, he wanders the city with his remote control, aiming it at people and buildings, hoping to change the world. He is arrested when he aims it at a politician. It seems that in exercising his symbolic voting rights he has committed the ultimate sin, and we last see him flipping channels in the asylum.

Calvino's experiments are not always successful for the reader, and the two stories which here exemplify this seem to be out-takes from his strange and somewhat cold work, Cosmiccomics, although they were written later. The main character here is Qwfwq, the protean and primordial presence with the unpronounceable name. "Implosion" and "Nothing and Not Much" share not only a main character with Cosmiccomics, but also its difficulties. It is hard to sustain humor in non-human terms since the comic seems so intimately wrapped up with mortality. The average reader will find little to identify with in these somewhat droll dissertations on Einstein-Rosen bridges and the Big Bang. Perhaps in a few hundred years, when readers have at last evolved into disembodied avatars in cyberspace, these works may finally be appreciated, and in this they may frighteningly apocalyptic.

Taken as a whole, Numbers in the Dark is a satisfying and provocative work which compares favorably with Calvino's best and is a perfect entry point into his world of brave uncertainties. The range and depth of these stories, all the more surprising in that many of them have remained unpublished for decades, is a perfect appetizer for those readers who may want to later sample some of Calvino's heartier fare. They will also satisfy the avid Calvino fan, adding fresh new insights into his complex intellect. The fantastic settings and ingenious framings of these pieces are engaging enough to draw anyone into Calvino's mad funhouse where a thousand wavy mirrors wait to reflect the hopes, doubts, and fears of our times.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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