Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, only some of which were first published in English in 1968, is a compendium of imaginary tales about creation and the laws of the universe. It’s quite different from any of the meta-explorations on semiotics he would become notorious for.
Most of the tales in this compendium are narrated by a being called Qfwfq, who tells his stories as if trying to preserve a literary tradition of the universe, one that also happens to be exquisite when read aloud. This makes one think Calvino was keen on making his tales feel like they had really been around since the beginning of time, and were being passed along from generation to generation. Very few contemporary short story compilations have given readers the same unabashed pleasure found in Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which makes it sad that English readers had to wait for decades for a complete translation of these works.
The Complete Cosmicomics only appeared in 2009, featuring translations from Martin McLaughlin, who explained he had translated stories that hadn’t even been commercially available in Italy and it took them another five years to make their appearance in the United States. The Complete Cosmicomics includes the 12 stories that first appeared in 1968, 11 stories that formed a series called t zero, and seven new stories translated by McLaughlin, which are just now making their English language debut and four tales from Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, making this one of the best literary releases of the year.
While there is no specific way of “consuming” the Cosmicomics, McLaughlin’s expert intro makes a great case for why the tales were written in the first place and what Calvino’s intentions were. He also serves as a guide into how we can enjoy the new additions. “The main reason [behind the origin of the tales] was that [Calvino] felt that realist fiction was exhausted and that the writer had to turn elsewhere for inspiration,” explains McLaughlin.
We can see this exemplified in “Games Without End”, which begins with a scientific-sounding explanation of the distance between galaxies. It establishes that “when the galaxies become more remote, the rarefaction of the universe is compensated for by the formation of further galaxies composed of newly creative matter”.
In fact all the Cosmicomics begin with a scientific introduction, which lead us to assume that Calvino was trying to filter readers through his uniquely intellectual fantasy, for these are science fiction tales, but done in a way that they aren’t instantly enjoyable. Calvino, who had begun his career in World War II as a realist, seems only two decades later to be completely frustrated with what other fiction authors were doing and attempted to take all his knowledge of Borges to the next level, by taking it to his very own universe. Therefore, many have debated if Calvino was a postmodernist or something else altogether.
Despite the tales’ intellectualism, the truth at their center is the need to find a link between scientific fact and something resembling a soul, or an essence. Calvino populates his stories with characters that represent the most human parts of our species, turning tales like “The Distance of the Moon” into sweeping love stories that feel as if they could be expanded in an epic novel. “My return was sweet, my home refound, but my thoughts were filled only with grief at having lost her, and my eyes gazed at the Moon, for ever beyond my reach,” he writes. In a strange sense, the yearning for meaning in each of these tales makes them feel like part of religious lore.
In the darkly humorous “The Aquatic Uncle”, Calvino details the dilemma of beings who are almost literally torn apart once their species moves from living in the ocean to becoming terrestrial creatures. This is seen through the title character, who refuses to leave the lagoon where he lives, much to the chagrin of his relatives who try to convince him. “You’ll be nice and snug, we’ll dig you a little damp holem” they plead, only to have the elderly creature exclaim “he who has fleas in his scales swims with his belly in the mud”, an expression that Qfwfq attributes to being “an idiomatic expression”.
Tale, after tale, there is so much pleasure to be derived from The Complete Cosmicomics, that you can’t help but be convinced at times that they are true, for these characters with their strange features and unique idiosyncrasies become so tangible that we feel like we have always known them. Calvino’s prose is simple, but never simplistic, granting those familiar with his literary influences the added bonus of recognizing little clues he has left to make this universe feel richer and more infinite than the one we inhabit.
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