It may not be the best route to discover and appreciate a truly imaginative writer like the Italian Italo Calvino, but all the same, my panoramic journey to “The Watcher and Other Stories” is my indictment to the beauty of his modern fables. There may be other brilliant stories he had written that made him one of the most inventive story tellers the like of Borges, Garcia-Marquez or Gunter Grass, but the three stories that comprise the collection, The Watcher (1963), Smog (1958) and Argentine Ant (1952) are all excellent works. They are all parodies of our belief and unbelief on the seeming tragedy and perversity around us and on what lies in redemption for being mortals.
The Watcher brings us to what transpires in the election specifically on the voting day in a large hospice in Turin where the “rejects” of humanity are to exercise their right of suffrage. What or who is the arbiter of sanity and freedom? Amerigo Ormea, a left-wing party watcher narrates his day in an experience of patients, incurables, nuns and invalids and the absurdity of the electoral ritual. Despite this corporeal farce, he still manages to eat his lunch at home during the lunch break and to spend some pages to read Hegel. Despite his ambivalence to the humane efforts of the nuns of Cottolengo, he still finds the redemptive force of humanity prevail in the landscape of political degeneration.
Smog is the second story that tackles the urban reality of smog. The protagonist who has been hired as the editor of the publication Purification that campaigns for a clean environment that’s funded by an industrialist who caused this hovering threat to human health. While the narrator is too preoccupied with his assignment that he even forgot his beautiful girlfriend, and soon discovered the lunacy of it all, ventures into the peripheries of the city. Here he indulges his senses watching the common people take life in stride. Calvino with his faith in humanity ever exuberant, concluded the story with this line, “it wasn’t much, but for me, seeking only images to retain in my eyes, perhaps it was enough”.
The last story Argentine Ant sounds Kafkaesque, and tells of a couple with a baby discovered that the house and the village they will be residing is the anthill itself of all anthills. What happens in the village like this becomes undoubtedly comical, filled with charlatans and magicians, believers and fence-sitters, rabid poison alchemists or entomological charmers. Calvino though, with his wit and wonder, presents a small escape to the horror of this trap, the truth of what it is to be human.
These stories, that range from the grotesque to the marvelous, are powerful antidotes to the creeping passivity, wretchedness and despair of our human condition. They stand firm and faithful to the tenets of literature, which is to provide even the smallest of window to the pitiable prison we often build ourselves.