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Rushdie On Calvino's Absurd, Charming Masterpiece

by Salman Rushdie
Sep 19, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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In 1965, the great Italian writer Italo Calvino — in a light, fantastic collection of 12 short stories, titled Cosmicomics — took on nothing less than the creation of the universe.

I first read Cosmicomics in my early 20s, and it's a book I've gone back to again and again. It is possibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written, a book that will frequently make you laugh out loud at its mischievous mastery, capricious ingenuity and nerve.

According to Calvino's story "The Distance of the Moon," the moon was once so close to the earth that lovers could jump across to it and — literally moonstruck — tryst and dally on the shining satellite, which was, by the way, dripping with moon milk, a kind of cream cheese. Then the moon started moving away, and lovers had to choose whether to return to Earth or remain trapped in the land of love.

In "All at One Point," the Big Bang turns out to be the result of the first generous impulse. Before the Bang, in pre-time and pre-space, things were pretty crowded. "(We were) packed in there like sardines," Calvino's narrator says, using "a literary image: in reality, there wasn't even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which is where we all were." Then a being named Mrs Ph(i)Nk0, the prototypical Italian mama, cried out, "Oh, if I only had some room, how I'd like to make some noodles for you boys!" And at once — wham! — there was room.

In the story "The Aquatic Uncle," Calvino's narrator, Qfwfq, talks about the moment when he, along with other creatures, first crawled out of the seas and began life on land. However, his stubborn great-uncle, N'ba N'ga, chose to remain underwater. Qfwfq is a little embarrassed to have a great-uncle who is a fish, and things get worse when his fiancée, Lll, begins admiring the old fellow's determination to cling to the old ways. Abandoning Qfwfq, she dives back into the sea. The love of Lll and the aquatic uncle is a defiant statement that things don't always get better when they change.

Perhaps only Calvino could have created a work that combines scientific erudition, wild fantasy and a humane wit that prevents the edifices of these stories from toppling into whimsy. If you have never read Cosmicomics, you have before you 12 of the most joyful reading experiences of your life.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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