If on a Winter's Night a Traveller opens with a familiar scene. You are sitting down, reading a book just bought from a bookstore. Which book? Why, it's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller! And 'you' are the main character - the Reader - gradually becoming comfortable in your chair, immersing yourself in the story.
With such an interesting beginning, it is difficult not to be intrigued. Unfortunately, the full text for Calvino's novel is not available, and the burgeoning story breaks. We, the reader, are frustrated, but Calvino has thoughtfully supplied us with the beginning of another novel, and then another, and another...each story very, very compelling, each one breaking off just before the mounting tension of the carefully crafted build-up peaks. Chapters are alternating between 'you' the reader searching for the missing ends of the books, and the beginnings of the books themselves.
Each 'new' novel seems to build upon the themes of the previous, that is, themes of truth and reality, and the inherent flaws in our beliefs of these two fundamentals. Recursion plays a heavy part throughout, we are pulled deeper into stories that are completely, absolutely different on the surface, but deep down, at their core, it is the same story, or an extension of the previous, or a beginning to the last. The novel reaches its height of confusion when the 'normal' chapters of the reader searching for the novel begin to interact with the snippets of books found, but it is here where Calvino is able to pose the most difficult questions. He prods at our ideas of the reality around us, and the subjectivity of truth, and there is little we can do but nod and smile as we are taken on this metaphysical journey.
Calvino's writing style is hard to pin down. The different novels are from authors scattered all over the world: Japanese, Spanish, Italian, more. He also inserts a few made-up nationalities. Because of this, the novels are written in very different ways. They are almost samples of that cultures literature. A recurrent theme is that of 'awareness'. The characters always seem to know that they are characters in a story, and act accordingly. They mentally discuss plots points and actions, observing that it is of a benefit to the story that they do such an action or talk to such a person. This is a refreshing and interesting approach, and helps ensnare the reader - or the Reader - within the tightening plot. The sections where 'Calvino' is talking to 'you' are for the most part written in a familiar, intelligent style. At times 'you' seem to be governing the narration, at others, Calvino.
While the novel may sound very confusing - and occasionally it can be - there is a very great pay off. Too often with post-modern novels there is a tendency to leave the conclusion to the reader, or for the point of the novel to be that there is no point. Not so with this book. Halfway through we are aware of what the point is, three quarters of the way we fully understand, appreciate and agree with the ideas behind it, and by the end, on the second or third last page, we are left in absolute awe at Calvino's genius as he brings everything together in a way that is so absolutely perfect and right, there could be no other logical resolution. He gives us the ending and the closure that we deserve and that the book demands. It is almost as though he has told us a Truth, one that we always knew before, but he had to explicitly show us first. And I am glad he did.