January 2015

Lee Matalone


Numbers in the Dark by Italo Calvino, translated by Tim Parks

Some short stories focus on the individual, seeking to explore the personal lives of a cast of fully rounded characters. The writers of these stories make their characters so human that we grow attached to them as we would a dear, albeit complicated, friend or family member. However, Calvino's characters in Numbers in the Dark are, for the most part, nameless. Do not expect to get emotionally attached. These are stories with existential questions and anxieties at the forefront. The personal is subordinated to the grand scope of history in order to explore the general Human Experience and all its absurdities.

The recent edition of Numbers in the Dark is a repackaging. At the request of Calvino's daughter, cover artist Peter Mendelsund redesigned twenty-plus covers of Calvino's works for First Mariner Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). As the designer behind an array of beautiful and highly successful covers, including those for Dostoevsky, Joyce, Martin Amis, and Stieg Larsson, Mendelsund pays close attention to the material behind his covers, creating a harmonious relationship between the graphic and print. On an ambient, experiential level, his covers let you know what you're getting on the inside.

His Calvino covers embrace simplicity over fanfare. Numbers in the Dark's white, lightly textured cover features a black amorphous blob with the number "1" floating next to it, a blob that Mendelsund aptly describes as having a "Calder-like feeling." The cover is pretty perfect; it epitomizes Calvino's modus operandi throughout these stories, to smudge the hard lines between the superficial nature of our day-to-day activities and the inherently abstract nature of the existential. Calder and Calvino's explorations of the abstract may perhaps reveal more about the essence of the thing than pink feathers and spindly legs.

The collection begins with "Fables and Stories," a selection of his raccontini, or little stories, from the years 1943-1958, and culminates with his "Tales and Dialogues," a selection of more extensive, elaborate imaginings written between 1968 and 1984. It's a satisfying assortment, a little bit of this and a little bit of that from Calvino's long-ranging, prolific career. In these stories, he imagines the murder of Caesar, the Memoirs of Casanova, a conversation with a Neanderthal. He is playful, funny, and hyper-aware of the complexity behind even the most simple act. You aren't just pumping gas or taking a shower: you're participating in an act that connects you to Nature and History.

In the latter section of the book, "Tales and Dialogues," Calvino brings historical figures back to life, allowing them in various "impossible interviews" to tell the stories that history took away from them. Often, their accounts dispel or clarify their myths, as in "Montezuma." When the narrator, "myself" asks the Aztec emperor if he initially mistook CortÚs for the serpentine god, Quetzacoatl, he balks: "Oh enough... This story has been told too many times. That this god was traditionally depicted as having a pale bearded face, and that seeing (he groans) the pale and bearded CortÚs we supposedly thought him our god... No, it's not that simple."

In other impossible interviews, Calvino lets the dead celebrity incriminate himself. In "Henry Ford," a "spokesman" asks the auto manufacturer, who he believes has "exercised the greatest influence on the history of mankind," how he would like to be portrayed in a memorial that is being constructed in remembrance of his great achievements. Ford remarks, "What I was thinking of was a model of humanity. I didn't just manufacture goods. I wanted to manufacture men!" Ford sets history straight: he may have been a titan of industry, but in Calvino's reimagining, he was a real asshole, with little regard for the value of a human life.

There's a little bit of paranoia to all these stories, a sense that everything is imbued with much more meaning than you may initially consider -- so much meaning that you well up and overflow with anxiety in realizing the sheer significance that lies in the most basic experience. For example, in a story innocuously titled, "The Petrol Pump," the narrator is looking to fill up his vehicle during lunchtime when all of the gas stations are closed. He is frenetic, his fears of running out of gas and his hyper-awareness of the gravity of this singular act, this filling up at the pump, in relation to the history of the earth, which creates an energy that makes your skin itch as you're reading it:

[A]s I fill my tank at the self-service station a bubble of gas swells up in a black lake buried beneath the Persian Gulf, an emir silently raises hands hidden in wide white sleeves and folds them on his chest, in a skyscraper an Exxon computer is crunching numbers, far out to sea a cargo fleet gets the order to change course, I rummage in my pockets, the puny power of paper money evaporates.

Reading these stories, you may feel some existential angst coming on, toska's dull ache growing in your chest. These stories unsettle, question, open up. But take comfort: there is great beauty to be found in exploring the complications of simple acts and experiences. Take this closing sentence from "The Call of the Water":

To live in complete intimacy with water the Romans placed the baths at the centre of their public life; today this intimacy is the heart of our private life, here under this shower whose streams I have so often seen running down your skin, naiad nereid undine, thus I see you once again appearing and disappearing as the jets fan out, now that the water comes gushing in swift obedience to my call.

 This story is about taking a shower. But isn't there much more to a shower than just the mechanical turning on and off of the faucet, the daily rinsing of grime? Calvino will show you more.

Numbers in the Dark by Italo Calvino, translated by Tim Parks
Mariner Books
ISBN: 978-0544146426
288 pages