Thursday, June 19, 2014

If on a winter’s night a traveler: The Three Levels of Inquiries

After posting summary of the first half of the book, I decided not to do the second summary post, but immediately jump to the three stage readings.

Who is the central character of this book?

It’s definitely The Reader (and that includes us all, the readers of this book).

What does the central character want? What is standing in his way? And what strategy does he pursue in order to overcome this block?

Reading-wise, he wants to have a straightforward novel with clear plot and ending; he reads just for pleasure, to satisfy his appetite. Unfortunately he keeps stumbling upon unfinished novels, so he confronts the publisher, the writer, the literary authority; he travels around the world to get to the novels he desired. Parallel with his quest of books, the Reader is also attracted to Ludmilla, the Second Reader. He wants to have her for himself, but there are the writer and the translator who seem to be involved in her life. He pursues them to get his books as well as to win his girl.

Who is telling you this story?

Calvino uses second person point of view. Interestingly, he never reveals the name of the protagonist (The Reader), so actually he wants to address all the readers of his book.

Images and metaphors

There are several metaphors in those unfinished novels read by The Reader, but the most distinguished ones are probably:

The void – In the second novel, Irina is having vertigo when she looks down the void below the bridge. Later in the book, Calvino repeats this word ‘void’ several times to emphasize the unreality beneath words in books. The stories have no relation with real things in real life.

The invisible power – The sense of power or control over a person is dominating the unfinished novels, either from an organization (like in first novel where the man arriving at the station looking for a message from ‘the organization’) or a person (Irina over Alex in 4th novel, or Jojo over Ruedi in 5th novel, and in most of the novels). I think it represents how readers, without realizing it, are actually controlled by authors, publishers, and all authoritative agents in literary industry. The Reader and Ludmilla think they are controlling their own reading, but in reality they depend on how the author writes; the translator translates, the publisher prints and binds the book, and so on. One little fault, and that will affect our reading very much.

Beginnings and endings

The novel begins with the narrator asking The Reader to prepare himself on the position of comfortable reading. He points out that he does not expect anything from the book he’s about to read (You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything… You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst.) I felt like Calvino here wants to dictate the Reader how to behave in reading, and kind of reprimand him on being passive or innocent towards his reading.

The ending is a resolution, with different result. Reading-wise, the Reader did not get the books he intended to read (and he seems okay with that), but he finally wins Ludmilla’s heart, and marry her.

Do you sympathize with the characters?

Both the Reader and Ludmilla represent parts of me, reading-wise. With the Reader, I share his enthusiastic quest for a more meaningful reading, although in different way. For me, it’s more of analyzing, philosophizing, and relating the story with real life; whereas The Reader’s focus is more physically. With Ludmilla, I share her desire to read freely without being influenced by the author or the institution who produces the books. In short, I sympathize with both of them for demanding and respecting the freedom in reading.

Does the writer’s technique give you a clue as to his “argument”—his take on the human condition?

From the way he hops from novel to novel without ever coming to completion, I think Calvino suggested that novels can never convey authors’ true intention completely to the readers. There is always gap between the two, especially when the reader is like Ludmilla or The Reader, who only read for pleasure; indifference of the author’s intention, or even existence.

And from how much the Reader struggle from wanting to read a good novel, the literary industry also has control over readers, though we do not feel it.

What exactly is the writer telling you?

That reading is an individual activity. Authors, publishers, translators, or whoever works in literary industry—and even country or sects—could try to control or persuade our reading, but we, readers, are free to have our own opinion on books we read. Marana and Flannery want Ludmilla to love them through their writing, but Ludmilla has her own way of appreciating books, which nobody can change or interfere.

Do you agree?

I agree that reading should not only for pleasure seeking or satisfying our desire (to reach the end). We should dig deeper than the surface of those printed words to get the author’s message. Because beneath the words—as Calvino said—there’s only void, unreal, and immaterial. Reading could be meaningful when we relate it with the real life; the author, the characters, and our present society.



  1. I read this book a few months ago, and really liked it. Your review was excellent, particularly your point about the reader not being passive, but participating in the creation of meaning. I also liked your point about readers not being aware of the extent to which their reading is controlled by the book-publishing industry, which is definitely true, both then and now. :)

    1. ...and thanks to Calvino, now we come to realise it, which is a bit annoying. :D
      I would have liked it too, if I didn't feel being bullied by Calvino.. :))

  2. Yep, aku setuju dgn kesimpulannya, ide besarnya tentang 'cara' masing2 orang membaca. Di bagian terakhir, saat The Reader bertemu berbagai macam pembaca di perpustakaan itu menurutku jg salah satu poin penting buat menarik kesimpulan itu.
    Tapi sepertinya ada sesuatu yg lebih kompleks yg 'disembunyikan' di antara novel2 yg ga selesai itu, detail2 yg--seperti dikemukakan salah satu pembaca di perpustakaan itu--bisa merangsang pikiran kita utk 'membaca' sesuatu yg ga tertulis. Sepertinya aku masih butuh merenung *halah* semoga bisa tertuang di reviewku nanti.

    1. hahahaha....iya, memang kayaknya masih ada yang mau disampaikan om Calvino ini. Gak mungkin lah, seiseng-isengnya orang, nulis susah-susah cuma untuk ngerjain pembaca. Tapi karena kalo diulas semua, PR-nya gak selesai-selesai, jadi aku ambil poin terpenting (dan terjelas aja) di sini. Lanjuttt di review! Selamat merenung! =))

  3. Great analysis. I skipped this part of TWEM and was thankful to have finished the book. So I obviously did not get deeply into it. But you did, and you made sense of it for me. It was a unique little story, but I couldn't get into it.

    1. Thanks Ruth. Yeah, it's very intriguing. The kind of book I would never want to revisit, but there are things that have changed my view towards reading. I'm sorry that you couldn't get into it.


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