Calvino’s Scientific Mythology

Book Review
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
Translated by William Weaver

The concept is simple: take an abstract scientific concept and bring it to life through the art of the short story. Yet what Calvino achieves in Cosmicomics is unparalleled.

The collection contains twelve short stories, each beginning with a short statement describing a scientific theory: a dry, explanatory piece of writing that feels like it could’ve been pulled out of an introductory astronomy (or biology) textbook. For example, the first story, “The Distance of the Moon,” begins with the following passage:

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. The the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

Then comes the bulk of each of 10-15 page story, all but two of which are narrated by Qfwfq, a wizened old storyteller who has seen everything from the beginning of the universe and who tells it all in a down-home style that feels as if the audience has gathered around a campfire to hear tales of long-ago. For example, “The Distance of the Moon” continues thus:

How well I know! – old Qfwfq cried, – the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us at that time, that enormous Moon: when she was full – nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light – it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled about the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind…

Qfwfq then goes on to tell the story of a group of people who would take a ladder up to the moon to harvest its cheese, and of his mute cousin who felt at home only on the moon, and of the captain’s wife who was in love with the cousin, and of the narrator’s love for the captain’s wife, and all the tragic results of the love triangle, with the moon at its center.

Each story is given a striking humanity, achieving that goal of every fiction writer: illuminating what it means to be human; yet Calvino’s methods often don’t involve humans, as the main characters are particles of dust, evolving animals, or even mathematical formulas. The stories, I believe, can best be described as “scientific myths,” i.e. not the myths of great scientific figures, but mythology based upon modern science, reinvented the past’s legends with today’s understanding of the universe.

Cosmicomics, like his best-known work If on a winter’s night a traveler, proves that Calvino is one of the most creative, innovative writers of the 20th century, able to use complex theory effortlessly to bring forth deceptively simple tales of basic human emotions.

[written January, 2008]

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