Thursday, September 29, 2011

Adam, One Afternoon by Italo Calvino

Adam, One Afternoon is a collection of short stories by Italo Calvino. The early stories are whimsical, mostly light, but as the collection goes on they grow gradually darker. An almost bucolic peace gives way to war and war ushers in a sense of harshness, of difficulty. Later, the wartime scenarios disappear, but that sense of harshness remains.

Most of the stories are based on Calvino’s experiences in the Second World War, in which he fought for the partisans of the Garibaldi Bridgade against the Germans. The stories, written early in his career, are largely neo-realist: Calvino described neo-realism as a “literature of war” and the collective voice of a generation, those brought up under the influence of Fascism and, later, the Second World War.

Nonetheless, he states that his work is derived from images rather than ideas. And, certainly, the stories in Adam, One Afternoon are strikingly visual. Most are essentially fairy tales. Themes and ideas are recycled, giving the individual stories a sense of cohesion. For example, in the title story animals are collected and given as presents, in The Crow Comes Last animals are shot one by one, while in Animal Wood they appear unexpectedly but people intercede to prevent them being shot. The same subject matter, woven differently.

Thre is something vaguely unsettling in the way that in stories which are essentially fantastic or whimsical a sense of realism breaks through while, in the neo-realist work, a sense of the fantastic may still pervade. It gives a sense of ethereality to the work, neither realist nor fantastic, but occupying its own, unique ground. Accordingly, we often see action through the eyes of a child, or someone otherwise an outsider, not cognisant of the political nature of the bloody events that unfold. Always, an otherworldy sense seems to pertain.

The final story, The Argentine Ant, the only one of substantial length, is almost magic-realist in its depiction of ants overwhelming a family and their house. It is beautifully written in a plain style which neatly counterpoints the oddity of the story. And, like so many of the stories here, it ends with a glimpse of the infinite.

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