Wednesday 1 October 2014

The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

The definitive edition of Calvino’s cosmicomics, bringing together all of these enchanting stories—including some never before translated—in one volume for the first time

In Italo Calvino’s cosmicomics, primordial beings cavort on the nearby surface of the moon, play marbles with atoms, and bear ecstatic witness to Earth’s first dawn. Exploring natural phenomena and the origins of the universe, these beloved tales relate complex scientific concepts to our common sensory, emotional, human world.

Now, The Complete Cosmicomics brings together all of the cosmicomic stories for the first time. Containing works previously published in Cosmicomics, t zero, and Numbers in the Dark, this single volume also includes seven previously uncollected stories, four of which have never been published in translation in the United States. This “complete and definitive collection” (Evening Standard) reconfirms the cosmicomics as a crowning literary achievement and makes them available to new generations of readers.

 Goodreads Description

The Complete Cosmicomics was published in the UK in 2009, and  now American readers can enjoy the complete set of Cosmicomic short stories gathered in one volume. I say short stories, but that seems an inadequate description of the pieces to be found in this book.  Each piece starts with a scientific fact about the universe and then Calvino develops an imaginative story around that fact, usually narrated by a character called Qfwfq, who was witness to the great bang and everything that has happened subsequently . In some cases there is a clear narrative, in others the pieces are more theoretical and discursive. All the Cosmicomic stories are playful and in yet in their way logical conceits on ideas. 

Inevitably the theories Calvino chooses are immense. Calvino's stories ride these theories like Qfwfq's family dispersed to all corners of space by the Big Bang. They can be a fun ride, especially when Calvino humanizes or anthropomorphizes the stories, such as the game of marbles conducted with atoms. They can be witty in the way they highlight the impossibility
of illustrating something that we can barely conceive: We were all there... where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time packed in there like sardines.

But for this non-scientist the more theoretical Cosmicomics seemed dry and hard to relate to and I found myself skipping to the next stories. This collection offers a sizable number from which to choose, so I soon found something I wanted to read.  

The initial collection of Cosmicomics was first published in 1965. One of the things that strikes me is how some of the "facts" he quotes are now regarded as false, indeed as feats of the imagination no less unreal than Calvino's stories. Science's narrative moves on - theories are proved or disproved, survive or are replaced by others. Is science a fiction?

The reason why Calvino called these stories Cosmicomics is explained in The Origin of Birds where Qfwfq says:  Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other. But of course this too is playing with the reader. The Cosmicomics are constructed from sentences. Instead we are asked to imagine the series of cartoons with all the little figures of the characters in their places, against an effectively outlined background, but you must try at the same time not to imagine the figures, or the background either.
The above sentence is just typical of Calvino, playful, logical but at the same time upending logic. The writer I was most reminded of when reading this book was a mathematician - Lewis Carroll.

Cosmicomics regularly appears on lists of greatest magic realist books and I can see why. On the other hand it does seem to me that in these stories Calvino invented a genre all of his own.

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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