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Fortune Hunting

Mortal Engines

by Stanislaw Lem, translated by Michael Kandel
Seabury Press, 239 pp., $9.95

The Sunday of Life

by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright
New Directions, 180 pp., $3.95 (paper)

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan converse among the fountains and magnolias of the Khan’s hanging garden. At first, the Venetian is unable to speak the Khan’s language, and can recount his travels in the Empire only with gestures, leaps, and cries, and by exhibiting various objects he has brought back with him. He also resorts to pantomime:

…one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city’s founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name. But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused.

Before long Marco masters the Tartar idiom and can express himself with much more precision. But then a certain nostalgia for the emblems sets in: “you would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past.”

Calvino seems to be thinking here of a passage in Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, where the eloquence of emblems is preferred to the poor specificity of speech. But the preoccupation with silent discourse, or better, with the ruin that comes upon stories when we are able to tell them, is very much Calvino’s own. In a preface to a new edition of his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, Calvino wrote of postwar Italy as “a varicolored universe of stories” for those emerging from the War and the Resistance. Wonderful material for a writer, and yet material a writer can only betray, ending up with what Calvino calls “remorse toward reality,” which is “so much more variegated and warm and undefinable” than the twisted exaggerations one can get down on paper.

So that when Calvino, in the same preface, talks of “this failure that writing always is,” and later says that “a written book will never console me for what I destroyed in writing it,” we hear an authentic sorrow and not merely a fashionable echo of Mallarmé. Language for Calvino is a kind of plague, something like the smog, or the swarm of ants, which appear in his earlier stories. It is what we live in and long to get out of. But since Calvino doesn’t want to give up communication, or even to break the linear clarity of his elegant prose, he must use language to point us toward other possibilities of expression: the comic strip (as in Cosmicomics), Marco Polo’s objects and pantomimes, and, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the tarot pack.

The tarots, widely used in fortune-telling and rather casually used in The Waste Land (“I’m not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack,” Eliot said), form a deck of cards with twenty-one picture cards in addition to the four full suits (cups, coins, swords, staves). There is also a card called The Fool, which corresponds to the Joker in our packs. The picture cards, or Arcana, portray, among other things, Eliot’s Hanged Man, the Devil, Death, Strength, Temperance, the World, the Moon, the Hermit, the Broken Tower, and most mysteriously of all, a female Pope (or perhaps a Pope’s wife). Calvino “reads” these cards not as a cartomancer, but as a person playing with them, laying out the stories which the cards, in their actual appearance, suggest to him. He sees forests, for example, wherever crossed staves begin to look thick on the ground, and the King of Swords followed by the Ten of Swords produces this effect:

…our eyes seemed suddenly blinded by the great dust cloud of battles: we heard the blare of trumpets; already the shattered spears were flying; already the clashing horses’ muzzles were drenched in iridescent foam; already the swords, with the flat or the cutting edge, were striking against the flat or cutting edge of other swords….

The tarot pack, Calvino says, is “a machine for constructing stories,” and he works with two versions of the pack: the sumptuous Visconti deck painted by Bembo, and the fairly common Marseilles deck which can be bought in any decent occultist’s shop in Paris. For the first deck, he imagines travelers staying overnight in a castle, or perhaps an inn—the place is rather too grand for an inn, and rather too disorderly for a castle.* The travelers have all had adventures—the narrator mentions his own “trials, encounters, apparitions, duels”—and are clearly longing to tell them. But they are inexplicably struck dumb, and thus find themselves in the position of Marco Polo in his early conversations with Kublai Khan, or in the position which perhaps ought to have been that of the Italian writer immediately after the war: full of stories and unable to speak.

Fortunately, they do have a tarot pack, and identifying themselves by means of cards which resemble them, they create from the pack sequences which represent their tales—or more precisely which the narrator turns into tales for them. We hear of an unfaithful lover, or of a punished grave robber, of a man who met the Devil’s bride. We also hear of Faust, and of Roland as he is portrayed in Ariosto. The narrator’s interpretations are confident but frankly speculative, relying on phrases like “our fellow guest probably wished to inform us,” “this row of cards…surely announced,” and “we could only venture some guesses”; and when he needs the story of Astolpho, the English knight in Ariosto who recovers Roland’s wits for him, he seems simply to conscript a fellow guest, who “might well be that English knight.” The narrator doesn’t tell us his own tale, but it is there, he says, buried in the pattern the cards make on the table once several crisscrossing stories have been dealt out.

For the second deck Calvino imagines another set of silent travelers, but they seem more clearly to be in an inn, as befits the less aristocratic nature of the cards themselves, and for some reason the stories deduced from these cards are much more vivid and ingenious. They include the tale of the waverer, a narrative that finds impossible choices at every turn of the card, and also the stories of Faust (again) and Parsifal, and the stories of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. At one point Calvino decides to interpret the picture card showing the Pope as signifying “the great shepherd of souls and interpreter of dreams Sigismund of Vindobona,” and starts to look for, and of course soon finds, the story of Oedipus in the pack, “that story which, according to the teachings of [Sigismund’s] doctrine, is hidden in the warp of all stories.”

For the tarot pack is not only a machine for constructing stories, as Calvino modestly says, it is a labyrinth where all the world’s stories can be found. But they have to be found, and finding them, it seems, does not interfere with the inexhaustible mystery of the labyrinth itself, which is organized, Calvino says, around “the chaotic heart of things, the center of the square of the cards and of the world, the point of intersection of all possible orders.” Calvino experiments briefly with “reading” other pictures in the same way, paintings of famous saints, for example, and he suggests, no doubt not entirely seriously, that he thought of completing his “Castle of Crossed Destinies” (the Visconti pack) and “Tavern of Crossed Destinies” (the Marseilles pack) with a “Motel of Crossed Destinies,” in which the mute survivors of an unnamed catastrophe would tell their tales by pointing to the various frames of the comics page of a scorched newspaper.

This new work as a whole doesn’t have the grace and tenderness of Invisible Cities—there is something too dogged, too methodical about Calvino’s application of his imagination to the tarots—but it has the discreet pathos which is never far from the surface in any of Calvino’s work. “When you kill, you always kill the wrong man,” Calvino says in a gloss on the story of Hamlet. And Calvino’s fiction, with its allusions to the denser speech of the visible world and indeed of life itself, is a monument to one of literature’s most important half-truths: When you write, you always write the wrong book.

Stanislaw Lem is a prolific Polish writer of fantasy and science fiction whose works are said to have a worldwide circulation of nearly seven million copies. Mortal Engines, a collection of fourteen stories and his seventh book to appear in English, shows him mainly in a jovial mood, as a light-hearted wouldbe La Fontaine of the cybernetic age. Most of the stories concern the activities of non-human creatures in various unlikely corners of space, planets and kingdoms with names like Aragena, Cyberia, and Aqueon, and the whimsy is laid on fairly thick:

Pyron invented the wire telegraph, and then he pulled the wire out so fine, it wasn’t there, and in this fashion he obtained the wireless….

Later I visited the hospital wards. I was introduced to an Old Testament computer that suffered from senility and couldn’t count up the ten commandments.

There are several stories which insist on the shiftiness, vengefulness, and general nastiness of human beings, who thus take on the mean, imperialist role which used to be assigned to Martians and Venusians and the like in Fifties science fiction. This is a worthy enough revision, but it has become a standard gesture in recent science fiction, and good science fiction, in any case, has always known it was us and not them who caused trouble, indeed has always known that they could not be anything other than versions of ourselves, mirrors of our favorite fears and wishes.

Lem’s special field, the theme which brings out his most vivid writing, is the puzzled relation between men and robots. And even here vivid is perhaps not the word. It is impossible to judge the texture of prose in translation, and Polish is no doubt fiercely difficult to render in English, but even apart from the tiresome and insistent whimsy, there does seem to be a jerkiness in Lem’s writing, an unsteadiness of focus or of inspiration, which is probably more a quality of mind than an accident of style or the casualty of travel between languages. Fine touches are constantly dissipated by a manner which simply marks time and misses chances. Here is an electronic king who first has himself riveted to his throne, so that he cannot be deposed, and then has his circuits deployed through his palace and his capital city:

  1. *

    A version of this part of the book has already appeared in English in Tarots: The Visconti Pack in Bergamo and New York, Franco Maria Ricci, Parma, Italy. Distributed in the US by Rizzoli International Publications, 1975.

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