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 …

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