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Ex Libris

October 20, 1985|UMBERTO ECO | From Le Monde, Sept. 20, 1985, translated by Jack Miles; "T Zero" quotation translated by William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). and

When Italo Calvino's "The Baron in the Trees" was published, we understood--we who were 10 years younger than he--that we had in him the writer of our generation. Later--when I made his acquaintance--his evasive and sardonic smile, his way of lowering his eyes when he spoke so as to conceal the flashing irony, could have misled me. But on reading his "The Watcher," I understood that in that little book this author, so near in spirit to the Encyclopedists, had given us one of the loftiest, largest religious texts I had ever encountered.

It was the story of a man on the Left in charge of counting the vote in a polling place located inside the Cottolengo, the immense hospital/asylum where a pitying Church took in those whom other charitable institutions had rejected: the homeless, the deformed, the crippled, the incurable. The protagonist of the story experiences at first the irritation of a secular man at seeing these poor wretches, incapable of comprehension or choice, exploited for electoral purposes, steered toward hope by the same nuns who, each day, clean up their slobber and their soil.

In the course of the day, however, he thinks about evil, about sorrow, about charity. He wonders with a certain puzzlement whether these strange voters are not, after all, paying their debt to the only beings who have taken any care of them. The work is one whose metaphysical vein was to turn up again in later works of more surrealist inspiration--in "Cosmicomics," for example.

But I do not want to speak of Calvino the writer; the whole world is doing that these days. I want to talk about the Calvino who used to go to hear avant-garde musicians--Berio, Maderna, Boulez; the man who put out the review "Menabo" with Elio Vittorini, trying to open a dialogue between the neo-realism of the traditional Left and the currents of the new experimental literature; the Calvino who was attentive, respectful and curious about precisely those of whom he did not approve.

Or again of the Parisian Calvino, who followed structuralist research on the grammar of narrative with the excited attention of a student and who, after the lapse of some years, declared himself the pioneer of a self-interrogating, "other" narrative technique ("If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"). Of that Calvino who, with Perec and the Oulipo group, took part in language games, knowing that a game can also be a mission.

In his relations with others, he always seemed ill at ease and eager to withdraw into himself as quickly as possible. But, behind the mask, he was always listening. As consultant to the Einaudi publishing house, he showed himself a generous discoverer of new talent, who knew how to work on others' manuscripts with the same excitement he brought to his own.

I cannot, here, avoid a personal recollection. In 1959, shortly after we became acquainted, he told me that he had just read in a music review an article on "Open Work." He asked me to write a book on this theme, which he found interesting. I wrote the book, though, for circumstantial reasons, it appeared with another publisher. Without Calvino's encouragement, I would never have begun it.

I mention this to show how, behind his mask of detachment and absence, Calvino knew how to be present to others, to encourage them, to help them create. More than a great novelist, we ought to recall today, and mourn, the enlivener of our cultural life, the irreplaceable figure of the last decades of our history.

The imaginary cosmos of Italo Calvino was poised, in a subtle equilibrium, between Voltaire and Leibniz. At the moment when I learned he was gone, I was reminded of a page in one of his works on which he seemed to speak to us of the passage into other universes. I speak of "T Zero," one of his most philosophical narratives, a meditation on Zeno of Elea and his eternally immobile arrow:

"What I ask myself is whether, seeing that at this point we have to go back in any case, it wouldn't be wise for me to stop, to stop in space and in time . . . . What, after all, is the use of continuing if sooner or later we will only find ourselves in this situation again? I might as well grant myself a few dozen billion years' repose, and let the rest of the universe continue its spatial and temporal race to the end, and wait for the return trip . . . or else let time go back by itself and let it approach me again while I stand still and wait--and then see if the right moment has come for me to make up my mind and take the next step, to go and give a look at what will happen to me in a second, or on the other hand if it's best for me to remain here indefinitely."

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