You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But alas there is a printer's error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. This remarkable novel leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the real hero is you, the reader.
Metafiction is sometimes a trait of the magic realism genre. The Oxford Dictionary defines metafiction as:
fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques. Calvino's book is a first-class example of this.
The book is an incredibly ingenious in how it approaches the story. It opens with the sentence: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Throughout the book the point of view of the protagonist, a young male reader known simply as The Reader, is in the second person. By apparently addressing us, the book disorients us. We know within a sentences we are in unusual reading territory. There is a second character, a female reader, referred to by the author as the Other Reader. The relationship between the two characters is one of the two plot drivers of the book.
The second plot driver is the search for the ending of the books that the two readers keep starting. The Reader starts one book which he thinks is by Calvino, but which stops after thirty pages. Trying to find a correct edition, he then finds out that the book is actually by a Polish writer, Bazakbal, but when he tries to get another copy, he finds that that this too is interrupted just as it is getting started. And so on as successive books turn out to be incomplete and written by another writer. In all, Calvino gives us the openings of ten different books in different genres. We share The Reader's frustration each time when he starts a book and begins to get into the story only to have his hopes dashed, because we too are taken up in the story, even if we know that the story will not be completed.
In many ways the book is about the process of reading and even book buying. There is a wonderfully observed section at the beginning where Calvino describes going in to a bookshop: In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you.
The two central characters share a love of reading for reading's sake, in contrast to some of the other characters in the book. It is this shared love which drives the romance, but the book recognizes that reading is ultimately an activity you do alone: One reads alone, even in another's presence. But Calvino also draws the parallel between love-making and reading.
As I look back over the last few paragraphs I notice how often I have used the word "but". That is perhaps symptomatic of the illusive and playful nature of this book. Just as you think you are at ease with it, it does something else. In contrast to The Reader and Other Reader with their love and faith in books, there is what might loosely be termed the antagonist - a man who is deliberately subverting literature by flooding the market with counterfeit translations. The story of The Reader's search takes him from a realistic setting, to a fictitious country, where people he meets are counterfeiting infiltrators. It is like a room of mirrors, such as one that plays a prominent role in one of the stories.
This is not a book for people who like a conventional plot line. It is a book for people who enjoy playfulness and thought. It is an extraordinary read.