Review: If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

Having outlived the age that many science fiction novels predicted, it is often very entertaining as a culture to nostalgically look back at the inaccurate and often outrageous foresight. Some of these stories, however, without intending, have managed to predict a fundamental aspect of the future with uncanny accuracy. A great example of this is With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling, which foresaw the spurt in the growth of the logistics and transportation industry, so much so that it begins to blur the lines between governments, thus folding political and economic problems into logistics problems. Another popular example is Orwell’s 1984, which is increasingly turning into a oft-cited (and at times abused) case study on the possibility of controlling thought and societal behavior by merely controlling media and language. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler prophecies a rather uncommon aspect of postmodern life that has managed to get under our skin — the interrupt.

In computer architecture, an Interrupt is a signal to the processor emitted by a hardware or software, indicating that a particular event needs immediate attention. The processor responds by immediately suspending its activities, saving its current state and then beginning a routine to deal with the interrupt. Depending on how they are designed, processors may be interrupted in the midst of resolving a previous interrupt, leading to a string of suspended activities.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is the title of a book, but also an incomplete sentence that perfectly captures the state of suspended plots accumulated over its course. As a Reader, You are constantly interrupted — sometimes because the book got mixed up with another in binding, other times because You had access to only a chapter, or because someone inadvertently steals Your book when You put it down for a minute. Each time you are interrupted, you find yourself confronted by a new book with a new story and new characters, only to be interrupted again as it begins to engage. Calvino uses his setting of print media chaos to evoke the sense of how constant interruption becomes its own routine.

We live in a system that sustains itself over the promise of such interruptions that constantly promise fruitful results — be it notifications from a messenger app creating false sense of urgency or internet companies pestering you to review something for them — all this while laboring over the details of daily life and work. So much that this causes successive fragmentation of a mindset until there exists no complete thought.

Calvino also makes other inadvertent references to painful adoption of a computer’s functionality — its frame of reference is shifty and unwieldy, often reminiscent of ‘this’ and ‘self’ variables in modern programming languages. The protagonist in the book is called using second person pronouns (You/Your) despite referring to different characters in different parts of the story. For most part You are a Reader. But sometimes You are also Ludmilla, the Other Reader, whom the Reader encountered at a bookstore. Sometimes You are a Writer struggling to reconcile with the realities of your own work. Other times You are just a passive reader looking over the Reader’s shoulder, reading the same stories that he is reading. There is always a book in your book so you can read while you read.

Interestingly, computers bear more than just a conceptual significance, when a brief episode reveals how academic communities have mechanized analysis of literature using statistics, and and entirely base themselves on details that arise from processing large amounts of data. When revealed, this deeply upsets a Writer who has forever imagined humans experiencing his book through the process of engrossed reading.

A crucial part of the story is the Organization of Apocryphal Power, a secret society run by a fiendish translator who aims to subvert published fiction. He does so by building a networked global industrial complex of writers, who churn out literature under the guise of bestselling foreign authors, thus jamming the popular fiction trade. Viewed as a threat to the construct of objective truth, many governments take it upon themselves to crack down upon OAP — and they do so by sending out fake fake authors who seek to infiltrate into the fake publishing industry.

“We’re in a country where everything that can be falsified has been falsified: paintings in museums, gold ingots, bus tickets. The counterrevolution and the revolution fight with salvos of falsification: the result is that nobody can be sure what is true and what is false, the political police simulate revolutionary actions and the revolutionaries disguise themselves as policemen.”

Calvino uses this premise to curate an ensemble of interrupted, and incomplete stories that the Reader discovers successively. Each of these tales have a different style, aesthetic and language. While together they form an episodic structure, they do more in contributing to empathy towards the Reader than directly to the plot. The latter parts of the book constantly meddle with the anxieties arising from lack of trust and a general numbness resulting from repeated alteration of existing facts. This specially rings loud in an era where tools to create information are increasingly used to create fake information, in turn affording each of us the audacity to declare something untrue for being incompatible with our increasingly narrow world view.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler puts Italo Calvino somewhere between the postmodernist meditations of Borges and the comical absurdist style of Chekov. It is only amusing to see his sense of humor unfold into an unflattering reality. With its shifty reference frames, constellation of plots, continuous meta-analysis of all the distributed actors surrounding reading, writing and publishing, it comes off as a book that merely needed the author as a means in order to write itself.