Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Calvino, Marcovaldo

Italo Calvino
Marcovaldo, or The seasons in the city 
translated by William Weaver
Harcourt, 1983

Calvino’s Invisible Cities, an irresistible book, gets the lion’s share of attention nowadays, but that book must be read in conjunction with this one, its boon companion, if you wish to receive, in full, Calvino’s vision of the possibilities and perils of city life.  Not only are these stories beautiful and hilarious, several of them are stories we’ll need if we intend to survive as a civilization.  Or, as seems more likely now, if a few of us just happen to survive, despite our all-too-human madness.

Specifically, stories like “The rain and the leaves” or “The city lost in the snow” or the comic masterpiece “The poisonous rabbit”.  Sometimes Calvino understands the world we live in now better than we do while standing in it.  These are sparkling chronicles of how our greed, ignorant ingenuity, and acquisitive curiosity land us in trouble again and again.

Each of these stories could be made into a perfect short animated feature.  In fact, they seem like cartoons made into stories.  Like a cartoon mouse, Marcovaldo is hapless, foolish, energetic and indestructible.  Everyone in the world is smarter than him, starting with his children and his battle axe of a wife, Domatilla.  The stories succeed because there is a perfect balance between the poverty and discouragements of Marcovaldo’s life and the non-stop zany slapstick wonder of life in the world.  Marcovaldo persists like a dandelion through a crack in the sidewalk, shining even while continually trod on.

Fifty years old, this book could not be more timely.  This line, for example, from page 63: “‘I have to look for a place’, he said to himself, ‘Where water is really wonder, and fish are really fish.  There I’ll drop my line.’”

(A persistent dream of mine is anthology of the stories we’ll require to survive on the Earth.  “The poisonous rabbit” is surely one of them.  I would include, too, AK Ramanujan’s “The Flowering Tree” -- the best fairytale in recorded human history -- and Clarice Lispector’s story “The Egg and the Chicken”.  What about you?  What would you include?  If you have ideas, could you leave a note below?  I would very much like a list of stories to seek out and read.  Thank you.)

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