A group of travellers chance to meet, first in a castle, then a tavern. Their powers of speech are magically taken from them and instead they have only tarot cards with which to tell their stories. What follows is an exquisite interlinking of narratives, and a fantastic, surreal and chaotic history of all human consciousness.
When my friend Chris passed this book and 100 Years of Solitude to me at the pub years ago, it really opened my eyes to literature beyond the bestsellers, and books that publishers pay to go in the ‘featured’ section. Thankfully it sent me on a trajectory to discovering some of the best written and most imaginative works of literature, and then beyond to other genres.
As always, Calvino styles this books differently to all his others, it really is impressive to read an author who can consistently change his approach and write such strong works, each of the six books of his that I have read so far have been challenging and ambitious.
The introduction is atmospherically written in the style of Le Morte d’Arthur, presenting us with a medieval castle, a dream like atmosphere and then we are into the story. Silently telling tales invites interpretations of body language as the placing of cards invites widely differing and not always clearly (for he narrator) conveyed ideas. Handily for the reader, there are reproductions of the cards in the margins of the book, as they are introduced, the detailed ones do suffer from the necessary smallness of the illustrations.
Interpreting Tarot cards in a direct fashion is not only a refreshing plot device but proves to be equally as subjective as their traditional use is. It is a clever medium in which to tell various stories but not in the original intended style as symbolic, of cabalistic, astrological, alchemical, etc, but of stories the reader will be familiar with in some way.
The structure of the book contains nods to the literary styles of both Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s The Decameron. There are also plenty of references to a whole plethora of well-known stories based around such characters as Roland, Oedipus, King Lear, Mephistopheles, Parsifal, and Orlando Furioso to name a few. It’s a delight to read and encompasses the need for humanity to understand both the world around them and our inner selves.
The book obsessed and challenged the author for many years so much so that the planned third part (entitled The Motel of Crossed Destinies, which would have involved comic strips) was abandoned due to Calvino’s desire to be free of it and wish to move onto another project. TCoCD works thanks to its complex planning and the execution of interconnected linking, and whilst some stories didn’t quite grab my imagination as much as I hoped they would, the overarching plot device and the interpretative style always has something fascinating to keep the reader’s attention.
A labyrinth of connected stories, a second reading has allowed me to pick up on things I had missed before and will give away more as I read more into the Classics. Whilst not up there with the great Invisible Cities it is nonetheless an ambitious work that pushed the author, and will stay with the reader once the last card has been placed and the book has been long since closed.