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Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

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This is a guest post by Kristie Lewis.

Today I’d like to introduce you to an esoteric but delightful linked collection of short stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. In the early 1960s, Calvino began playing with celestial bodies, microbes, and prehistoric creatures as characters, and published these short fables or “cosmicomics” in magazines like Playboy before collecting them as Cosmicomics (1965; English edition 1968). This moment in time, just before a decade of massive and terrifying upheaval, was perhaps the high-water mark of secularism, in America at least. Many people were looking for ways to take the truth that science was rapidly uncovering about the universe, and make it congeal as a compelling, coherent narrative.

Any such project would be, by definition, science fiction, but that genre per se was, with a few exceptions, constrained to its own literary ghetto. It’s hard to remember the extent to which snobbery toward science fiction prevailed among “serious writers” in those days (though such attitudes still exist, nevertheless the progress is remarkable; sci-fi and even comic books are now firmly entrenched in the lit world). But Calvino flouted any boundaries as a writer: a member of the French avant-garde group Oulipo, he also reached far back into tradition, drawing frequently on his heritage of Italian folktales and the commedia dell’arte spirit.

Cosmicomics employs a non-consecutive structure linking its twelve fables, as well as a recurring narrator, Qfwfq (not a typo), who has existed since the Big Bang and is reincarnated in the form of galaxies, stars, an amoeba, etc.

The first story, “The Distance of the Moon” is about the Moon moving farther from Earth, while the second, “At Daybreak,” backtracks to the formation of the solar system. “A Sign in Space” zooms out to the movement of galaxies, “All at One Point” depicts the Big Bang as a relief from a crowded gathering, and “Without Colors” is about the formation of Earth’s atmosphere. “Games without End” pits Qfwfq against his enemy Pfwfq in a game of marbles with hydrogen particles, thus forming all other matter in the universe. “The Aquatic Uncle” is about the etiquette of evolution among amphibians and disapproving fish. “How Much Shall We Bet?” fleshes out the abstractions of probability and cybernetics. “The Dinosaurs” has Qfwfq as a dinosaur who far outlives his own era and convinces some fearful mammals not to kill him. “The Form of Space” symbolizes gravity as romantic longing (a parallel also exploited in the first story). “The Light-Years” illustrates the expanding universe, and finally “The Spiral” revisits the themes of love, time and loneliness, as Qfwfq, now a mollusk, builds a shell around himself.

The stories are poignant and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. Calvino is unique in that he is an unmistakably experimental writer, and yet simultaneously has crowd-pleasing instincts. He never falls into the trap of being “inaccessible,” even as his typewriter performs the most mind-bending, convention-defying tricks. He presents infinity in all its staggering trippiness, but never without his distinctively human, mammalian, even avuncular touch. It reminds me of the mixture of goofiness and paradox found in certain cartoons.

I wonder if that isn’t the sense in which he means the “comics” part of the title. The same way that human experience is abstracted and yet made more real by a stereotyped, anthropomorphized avatar like Mickey Mouse, so Calvino imbues the most superficially alienating, even “inanimate” entities with soul. This is the value of mythic narrative, in the end: the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of revelation go down.

Qwfwq and his cohort are endowed, not only with humanity, or what we flatter ourselves into thinking that word should mean, but also with the most petty of human foibles, which Italo, being Italian, must have recognized as an important characteristic of myth. Jealousy, pride, rashness, are given to star and seashell alike. Calvino brings a light, folkloric wit that always carefully balances his heady postmodern touch. Highly recommended to sci-fi readers who are game for branching out into humorous experimental work (something like an an Italian Vonnegut).

After obtaining her construction management degree, Kristie Lewis decided she wanted to help others better understand the process and industry by writing about it. Feel free to contact her with your questions, comments or concerns at Kristie.lewis81@gmail.com.

4 thoughts to “Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino”

  1. So good to see this! I discovered Calvino for the first time about 10 years ago, and ever since have been appalled that he’s not more widely read & celebrated… though my personal favourites are the fantastic & engaging “The Nonexistent Knight” and “The Baron in the Trees.”

  2. @uberdervish:

    I’m glad to hear that you know and appreciate this author! This was the first time I had heard of him, but I am planning on checking out more of his stuff. Thanks for the info.

  3. Great review!

    I was first introduced to Calvino only a few years ago; “Invisible Cities” blew my mind. Cosmicomics was the next one I read, and I still pick it up from time to time just because it’s that kind of book. You could plow through it in an afternoon, but it’s so rich that there are passages you just want to stop and think about over a cup of coffee for a while.

  4. Thanks Eidolon – 3 glowing reviews of this book is more than enough to make me want to pick it up!

    I can’t believe I had never heard of it before now. Oh well, better late than never right?

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