Calvino: Cosmicomics

March 29, 2010

Cosmicomics (1965)
Italo Calvino (Harvest, 1976; trans: W.Weaver)
153 p.  First reading.

This is my kind of science fiction.  When I read If on a winter’s night a traveler a few years ago, I could see that Calvino was a major talent, the sort of writer who can make words do whatever he wants, but I found that book too preoccupied with literary theory to really be enjoyed as a literary work.  Cosmicomics is an entirely different beast; it came bounding off the page with a joyful shout, generously took my arm, and entertained me from the first page to the last.

In a series of short stories our narrator, bearing the unpronounceable but cheeringly palindromic name Qwfwq, tells tales about various periods in the history of our universe.  Qwfwq is a good-natured supernatural being of some sort.  He existed at the Big Bang, saw the sun and the solar system form, and experienced at first-hand the evolution of life on Earth.  Calvino’s cosmos is populated with an entire race of such beings, with family relationships and romantic entanglements of their own.  Qwfwq is, perhaps, Earth’s resident angel, although not exactly.  He is an immaterial being, but he is able to take material form as well, now as an amphibious fish, now as a mollusk, now as a man. He is a very odd sort of fellow.

Through Qwfwq’s eyes we see the history of our world from an heretofore unsuspected vantage point.  For him, the formation of planets is significant principally because it makes the sun’s protoplanetary disk lumpy and uncomfortable, especially for his complaining grandmother; he welcomes the Big Bang because it was simply too crowded in the primordial singularity; the transition from sea- to land-dwelling animals is for him an occasion for inter-generational conflict; the fact that the moon has steadily moved away from the earth means that he can no longer earn a living collecting lunar cheeses.  What science regards as an impersonal cosmos, Qwfwq shows to be as lively and full of personality as a small town, complete with quarrelsome families, nosy neighbours, youthful crushes, children’s games, resident aliens, and love triangles (including the universe’s only such triangle constructed entirely from parallel lines).

I suppose I make the book sound silly.  It is not.  Calvino’s fabulism does not prevent his probing the heart, and while each of these stories has an element of romp and romance, none of them is only that.  “The Spiral”, about the life of a mollusk, is a beautiful meditation on creativity; “The Light Years”, about interstellar communication, becomes a reflection on guilt and social pressure; “The Distance of the Moon” (my favourite story of the bunch) turns into a poignant portrayal of love and estrangement.  The book manifests what Peter Leithart has called “deep comedy”; here is a universe in which, though Calvino does not say so, it is quite plausible that it is, after all, love that moves the sun and the other stars.

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