‘Cities & the Dead 1’ by Italo Calvino

At Melania, every time you enter the square, you find yourself caught in a dialogue.

Yes, I have chosen Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and yes, I have chosen a city called Melania. It’s almost too perfect. The story of Melania essentially predicts social media: the town square representing the platforms we gather on, and the characters—or “roles” as Calvino calls them—are all of us, hiding behind our profile pictures and avatars and invented personas. It is a fierce and accurate premonition of how we communicate in the latter half of the second decade of this century. The outrageously wonderful irony is that social media is the city’s namesake’s husband’s favoured method of making political and personal proclamations as 45th President of the United States of America. And I’m terribly sorry for this: for putting Italo Calvino and Donald J. Trump in the same sentence.

Melania’s population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes role or abandons the square forever, or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes until all the roles have been reassigned; but meanwhile the angry old man goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer never ceases following the disinherited youth, the nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the previous scene.

Invisible Cities should be read in its entirety, but I’m including ‘Cities & the Dead 1’ here to make a point. In this story, Calvino appears to be prescient to the point of satirising entire societies and even global trends more than 30 years after his death. Calvino’s true genius, of course, is the timelessness of the mirror he holds up to us.

First published in 1972, translated into English in 1974 by William Weaver

‘Into the War’ by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin

This is an understated story. It is also such a brilliant insight into war, I experience a little shock each time I read it. The narrator is recalling his adolescence in the summer of 1940 in an Italian city. Italo Calvino would have been seventeen years old that year. “It was a time in our lives when we weren’t interested in anything.” The boy goes to the beach with his friend, Jerry Ostero, and a girl “with blondish hair and a long neck”, who “was Fascist in her opinions”. After the beach, they part. When they meet again, it is early evening. The war has begun. There is no sudden drama and no exaggeration of violence. The writing continues in steady rhythm, observations are made as matters of fact. French planes fly over, sirens are heard, and the rural poor, now displaced inside their own country, arrive in town. But the nature of people continues, the same as ever. Everything changes but everything stays the same. I love this story because it echoes my experience and understanding of war. It is Calvino at his best.

From Into the War, Penguin Classics, 2011. First published in Italy as L’entrata in guerra, Einaudi, Turin, 1954

‘The Adventure of a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver

Federico, who lives in the north of Italy, makes occasional long-distance train journeys to visit his lover Cinzia, who lives in Rome. He travels by night as it’s cheaper, and he is almost always guaranteed an entire compartment to himself. Each time, he undresses carefully and allows himself the pleasure of the enclosed space and precisely-allotted timespan to anticipate his arrival in Rome.  But this night, his solitude is interrupted.

First published in English in Difficult Loves, 1983