Completed 2/7/2016, Reviewed 2/8/2016
This was a complex, experimental novel about a group of people gathered at a castle, and later a tavern, telling their recent adventures not by speaking, but by using cards from a tarot deck. The author uses the images and the patterns in which the cards are selected to produce probable narratives and gain insight into the lives and choices of the story tellers. It is not a light read. It is more like a collection of interrelated short stories dealing with archetypal themes and images.
The book is divided into two sections, the Castle and the Tavern. At each location, the storytellers use a different tarot deck with different images which creates a variety of details and direction for the story telling, which adds a diversity to the stories. The images for the cards are in the outer margin, so you can see the details besides just having the explanation. This greatly helps the movement of the stories.
I got the impression that this was maybe supposed to be a little like “Canterbury Tales”. However, I found that the stories quickly ran together. Even though the stories are different, eventually the same cards are used, signifying similar situations. It makes me wonder if this book is not meant to be read in one or two sittings, as I did, but rather, each story needs to be read and digested individually with sufficient time between the readings. Perhaps a lot like the tarot itself. It’s not particularly helpful to do reading after reading, but rather, to wait and see what insights came forth.
What really stands out is the prose. It’s well-written and begs the question of how this book reads in its original Italian. This is a common question for me and many readers when confronted with a translation. What is the experience like for the Italian reader, and how much am I losing in translation. Or, if I was a native Italian speaker, would I also find the stories run together despite how beautifully written it is. For me this is one of those times when the prose is not enough to carry a confusing jumble of narratives and by about halfway through the book, I just wanted to be done with it.
The most interesting part of the book is the Note at the end. Calvino discusses his process of putting the book together through the use of actual tarot cards. This and the prose save the book from a two star rating. I give it three stars out of five. I’ve been told that Calvino’s books are very different from each other, so I definitely need to read something else if I’m to get a different and perhaps more complete perspective on his literature.