Although he maintained close attention to concrete, realistic detail—both physical and psychological—throughout his career, Italo Calvino, like his fellow neorealists, was quick to point out that his realism was actually quite different from naturalism. Not content simply to describe the visible and tangible, Calvino always sought to arrive at the intangible reality—symbolic, psychological, historical, social, mythic—that concrete phenomena both reveal and conceal.
“Adam, One Afternoon”
“Un pomeriggio, Adamo” (“Adam, One Afternoon”), one of his most discussed early stories, admirably demonstrates his understated skill in this complex endeavor. Maria-nunziata, a young kitchen maid, spies the exotic new gardener’s boy from her window. Her jovial, childlike curiosity is aroused by the odd young man, who wears the short pants of a little boy and the long, tied-back hair of a girl. Liberoso (“Liberty” in Esperanto) beckons and asks if she wants to see—and receive—something nice. Unsure but intrigued, she cautiously follows Liberoso into the garden, even though he refuses to answer her insistent questions. Leading her deeper into shadows, he finds the spot that he had already carefully chosen. Pushing aside some foliage, the half-naked youth reveals to Maria—a toad. Revolted and superstitiously afraid, Maria refuses his unusual gift. However, remaining enticed by Liberoso (who is as desirable and incomprehensible as he finds her), she continues to accompany him through the Edenic garden. Their curious quest is apparently never fulfilled, though, for the discoveries that they make provoke wonder and delight in Liberoso but disgust or dread in Maria. Through the process, however, Maria—increasingly trusting yet continually mystified—experiences some of the heady, perilous freedom that Liberoso embodies.
With little in the way of plot, action, or character development—a common characteristic in Calvino—“Adam, One Afternoon” is memorable for its magical atmosphere. Full of tension and ambiguity, innocence and sensuality, the story organically portrays both the light sweetness of the idyll and the weighty symbolism of myth. The abrupt, cryptic ending, with its riotous invasion of Maria’s world by Liberoso, encourages a variety of interpretations.
“The Crow Comes Last”
“Ultimo viene il corvo” (“The Crow Comes Last”) is perhaps Calvino’s most famous early story. Containing the same curious mixture of innocence, magic, and danger as “Adam, One Afternoon,” it is set in wartime. It begins with a nameless, “apple-faced” boy fearlessly appropriating a partisan’s gun to shoot at targets—trout, birds, rabbits—in an expert display of marksmanship. Perceiving the usefulness of the boy’s gift, the commander entices him to join up with them. This the boy does without hesitation, for he is eager to see new things, “all at those false distances, the distances that could be filled by a shot swallowing the air in between.”
Because he is ignorant of the natural laws of cause and effect, uncaring if his target is inanimate or animate, the boy’s ritualized play, without thought or effort, soon progresses to firing at increasingly significant targets. Like an amoral god or natural force, the boy is oblivious to the consequences of his actions; he does not understand that death follows his magical filling of space between gun barrel and living being. Thus, when he spies a new challenge on the road below—the indistinct insignia on the uniforms of German soldiers—he fires. His shots rouse the sleeping partisans, who ironically interpret his attack on the enemy as heroic; interpretation, the gap between being and seeming, is a favorite device (and theme) of Calvino.
By recording meticulously a final, fatal game of cat and mouse, the concluding pages intensify the detached dreaminess and moral ambiguity of the story. Jumping abruptly into the mind of the German soldier about to die, the narrative exposes the psychological toll of fear and hope: Lucid reason imperceptibly becomes hallucination—or revelation. It is for the reader to decide.
“The Adventure of a Bather”
Calvino’s narratives—whether humorous, like Marcovaldo: Or, The Seasons in the City, or gently...
(The entire section is 1780 words.)