Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

The dog signifies nothing...
Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.

Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own introduction that modesty drives him to frame the three stories as mere entertainments, and that if the reader draws anything further from them then that’s the reader’s fault and no blame should be laid at his door. I hope you’ll afford me the same spirit of generosity and forgiveness.

So, Our Ancestors is a trilogy of (very) loosely themed stories, narrated by a third-party witness to events, and if enjoyment is the sole purpose, then in my opinion and for my taste, there is a definite hierarchy – at the top is The Non-existent Knight, then follows The Cloven Viscount, and propping up the others is the much longer The Baron In The Trees. In the first, a suit of armour is inhabited by the sheer will power of someone who doesn’t exist, whose only purpose is truth, and was, as Jules Verne said of Phineas Fogg, exactitude personified. His path across the battlefields of France is intersected by an amorous young knight, a mournful and bitter orphan-knight, and a love-hungry warrior maiden who wants only the man she can’t have (and who we later learn, [spoiler coming up – look away now] is the narrator of the story from her cell in a local convent and whose self-referential passages are pretty dull in comparison). A coincidental, comical convergence causes crisis for the non-existent knight and he sets out, with idiot squire in tow, on a quest to prove his title and therefore his non-existent existence is true, and, time and space be damned, crosses France, England, the Atlantic Ocean, North Africa and France again to return to the court of the aging and tired Charlemagne with his evidence, all of which is rebuffed, falsely it seems, and he ceases his non-existence, or rather, more so than before, in fact completely. There are some beautifully crafted characters herein, and the landscape is replete with those peasants and armour-fillers whose casual acceptance of the situation adds a surreal gloss to events. The Knights of the Holy Grail are thoroughly lampooned, and Charlemagne himself, at the end of his long campaign, the origins of which no-one seems able to recall, is toying with senility. All in all, a very lovely literary farce, a satire full of people chasing people, seducers being outwitted, young lust frustrated and a village idiot knocking over furniture and washing up in fishermen’s nets.

Um... Berto?
The Cloven Viscount is equally far-fetched, given it follows the life of a young nobleman blown into two halves by a Turkish cannon whilst on his first crusade, the two halves representing the twin sides of a single personality and who both manage to go on living despite the obvious challenges. Somewhat repetitive in parts, but with equally biting satire, the evil viscount wreaks misery on his populace, annoying the exiled Huguenots who are too afraid of persecution to be properly pious except in only the most vague terms, chopping plants and animals in half – to make them better appreciate the duality of existence perhaps – and trying to bed a young farm hand who gently ducks his attentions, causing her parents to suffer his perverse attempts at blackmail. That is, until the ‘good’ half of the viscount arrives, at first being a beacon of hope to the inhabitants with acts of charity and healing, but then by his very goodness attracting the attention of his evil half to those that he helps, thus becoming a curse in his own right, and who also falls for the plump young maid, causing [spoiler coming up – time to avert your gaze momentarily] the two halves to unite after their comically ineffectual duelling results in the removal of their sutures at rapier point allowing the two halves to be reunited at the divide. The one irritant is the narrator, ostensibly a young relative free from parental supervision and able to be at the side of every interested participant in the tale – a necessary device given the format, but irksome and calling into doubt an already improbable story by his intrusions. In a context where this tale appeared, for example a tale in Chaucer’s pilgrims’ progress, as part of a collection of storytelling it would probably sit less uncomfortably – although maybe that’s what this collection tries to be. Meh.

They could have chosen different poses...
Lastly, comes The Baron In The Trees, where a family slight sends the heir to the duchy into an oak tree from which he is never to climb down and from which he conducts the business of being a noble man, an intellectual, a philosopher, a villain, a military strategist, a lover, and a great storyteller. A simple and interesting premise you might think, but as the tale spans his entire, lengthy, life, related to the reader by his younger sibling, is in parts repetitive and dull. Many stories could have been trimmed, albeit at the cost of the great scope of the satire, to make it more enjoyable, and perhaps this is where the author’s own defence of the triptych falls a little flat, as enjoyability comes second to whatever it is Calvino is trying to say. I freely admit I skimmed some passages in order to advance before my 40th birthday*.

Phew. So at the end of this lengthy review which touches on plot but very little on what one might draw from levels below the facile, what have we learned? This is enjoyable for the most part, and even the bits that drag have merit, and like in his re-telling of 200 Italian Folktales, his voice and style is warm and distinct, rendering the surreal endearing and human. Plus, he doesn’t have a beard – that’s right, yes?

*Thankfully** more than a couple of years hence…

**I hasten to add that I have nothing against anyone over the age of 40

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