(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Italo Calvino’s book, a series of short fantastic tales, falls into two major parts: “The Castle of Crossed Destinies” and “The Tavern of Crossed Destinies.” In two isolated and mysterious settings, guests and patrons relate the stories of their lives. Since these experiences are extremely harrowing or traumatic, each storyteller, including the narrator-observer, has lost the power of speech. The method of narration, therefore, becomes the pictures on the cards of the tarot deck, which each guest arranges in the order that most closely corresponds to the story of his or her life. No one refrains from telling a tale; indeed, as the series of tales progresses, they fight for possession of cards crucial to individual stories. The tales validate the lives of these people and relating them justifies their experiences. Since pictures do not have the same precision of meaning as words, however, the reader has the option, at each phase of the story, of accepting the principal interpretation of the narrator-observer, one or another of the variants he offers as possible but less likely, or, because the cards themselves appear in the margin of the text, of fashioning his own interpretation of what was signified as each card was placed. Calvino thus allows the reader to become an active participant in the narrative process.

This unusual narrative method strips the tarot of its use for prophecy and makes it exclusively a tool of the archetypal past. One individual’s story told in reverse (by transposing the order of the series of cards) becomes the tale of a second. As the cards lie face up, with each series revealing a story, every intersection of a series becomes the starting point for a new tale and the experience of another narrator. Each narrator, therefore, becomes an archetype whose story transcends that individual’s experience.

For example, the Popess, a card illustrated with a crowned, nunlike figure, which accuses the Ingrate Knight of having offended the goddess Cybele by deserting a woman who has befriended him, juxtaposed to the Ace of Cups, becomes an inspiration for the Alchemist. The Emperor, the card which the Alchemist selects next, suggests the prophecy of the forest witch that the Alchemist will become the most powerful man in the world, while the Juggler, the next card in the Alchemist’s series, coupled with the Seven of Coins and the Two of Coins, indicates a barter of the Alchemist’s soul for the secret of gold.

Because the same cards have different meanings in the context of each storyteller’s experience, the quadrangle of Death, Pope, Eight of Coins, and Two of Clubs, which had been elements in the story of the Doomed Bride who chose to wed herself to the Devil rather than to God (a tale resembling the abduction of Persephone by Pluto), becomes the inspiration for the Grave Robber. The narrator observes from the...

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