If on a winter's night a traveler
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
This book is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter's night a traveler. The first chapter and every odd-numbered chapter are in the second person, and tell the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter. The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.
The book begins with a chapter on the art and nature of reading, and is subsequently divided into twenty-two passages. The odd-numbered passages and the final passage are narrated in the second person. That is, they concern events purportedly happening to the novel's reader. (Some contain further discussions about whether the man narrated as "you" is the same as the "you" that is actually reading.) These chapters concern the reader's adventures in reading Italo Calvino's novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Eventually the reader meets a woman, who is also addressed in her own chapter, separately, and also in the second person.
Alternating between second-person narrative chapters of this story are the remaining (even) passages, each of which is a first chapter in ten different novels, of widely varying style, genre, and subject-matter. All are broken off, for various reasons explained in the interspersed passages, most of them at some moment of plot climax.
After reading the first chapter (which is really the second chapter of the actual book), the reader finds the book is misprinted and contains only more copies of that same chapter. When he goes to return it he is given a replacement book, but this turns out to be another novel altogether. Just as he becomes engrossed in that, it too is broken off: the pages, which were uncut, turn out to have been largely blank.
This cycle repeats itself, where the reader reads the first chapter of a book, cannot find the other chapters in his copy of the book, so he goes out to find another copy. But the new copy he gets turns out to be another book altogether.
The second-person narrative passages develop into a fairly cohesive novel that puts its two protagonists on the track of an international book-fraud conspiracy, a mischievous translator, a reclusive novelist, a collapsing publishing house, and several repressive governments.
The chapters which are the first chapters of different books all push the narrative chapters along. Themes which are introduced in each of the first chapters will then exist in proceeding narrative chapters, such as after reading the first chapter of a detective novel, then the narrative story takes on a few common detective-style themes. There are also phrases and descriptions which will be eerily similar between the narrative and first-chapter chapters.
The ending exposes a hidden element to the entire book, where the actual first-chapter titles (which are the titles of the books that the reader is trying to read) make up a single coherent sentence, which would make a rather interesting start for a book.
The title If on a winter's night a traveler is a good indicator of this novel which is reminiscent of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. The book commences on a hypothesis of novelistic elements ("If...") on a when, a someone...would do what? According to this book, the entire novel, even its plot, is an open trajectory where even the author himself questions his motives of the writing process. This theme — a writer's objectivity — is also explored in Calvino's novel Mr. Palomar, which explores if absolute objectivity is possible, or even agreeable. Other themes include the subjectivity of meaning (associated with post-structuralism), the relationship between fiction and life, what makes an ideal reader and author, and authorial originality.
Cimmeria is a fictional country in the novel. The country is described as having existed as an independent state between World War I and World War II. The capital is Örkko, and its principal resources are peat and by-products, bitumonous compounds. It seems to have been located somewhere on the Gulf of Bothnia. The country has since been absorbed, and its people and language, of the 'Bothno-Ugaric' group, have both disappeared. As Calvino concludes the alleged, fictional encyclopedia entry concerning Cimmeria: "In successive territorial divisions between her powerful neighbors the young nation was soon erased from the map; the autochthonous population was dispersed; Cimmerian language and culture had no development" (If on a winter's night a traveler, pp. 44–45).
The pair of chapters following the two on Cimmeria and its literature are followed by one describing another fictional country called the Cimbrian People's Republic, a communist nation which allegedly occupied part of Cimmeria during the latter's decline.
Ironically, languages named Cimmerian and Cimbrian have both existed. The Cimmerians were an ancient tribal group, contemporary with the Scythians, who lived in southern Ukraine. The Cimbrian language still exists today, and is spoken by 2230 people in northern Italy, not too remote from Calvino's home in Turin. Whether Calvino knew that his fictional languages were, in a sense, real is debatable.