Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175
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 young man’s dress that he must have robbed only the graves of the illustrious or wealthy (popes, for example), and that he used two clubs as levers. The Grave Robber’s tale is a classic one of choice. He climbs a huge tree (Life), reaches a suspended city (the World), and is offered riches (Coins), power (Swords), or wisdom (Cups). He characteristically chooses riches, but the archangel who offered him the choice instead gives him damnation (Clubs).
Roland is also among the castle guests, and, as one might expect, uses the cards to tell a story of chivalric romance. Despite warnings that he should not enter the forest of love (Ten of Clubs), he does so to pursue Angelica, the enchantress from Cathay who intends...
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to ruin the French armies (Queen of Swords). Roland finds her with the youth, Medoro (Page of Clubs), and pays for his choice of love over war with the loss of his sanity. Force triumphs, and Durendal, Roland’s invincible sword, hangs forgotten on a tree, while lunacy (Moon) reigns over Roland’s earth. Justice is the penultimate card in Roland’s series, followed by the Hanged Man. These last two cards may imply that Roland’s knights will save him from his fury, or only that Roland prefers his madness.
The tales of the tavern patrons, also told with cards, similarly interlock, though they use a different tarot deck, one consisting of seventy-eight cards, for their intersecting tales. The major difference is that while the castle tales appear in clearly defined vertical or horizontal rows, the tavern stories form blocks with more irregular outlines; also, they are superimposed in a central area, where the cards appearing in nearly all the stories are concentrated. This new pattern allows the possibility of a different narrative method from that used in the castle section. The Waverer, for example, is a young man incapable of making choices, and the block arrangement underscores the alternatives he faces as he vacillates, wrings his hands, and repeatedly changes the order of the cards. The Eight of Cups, the Ten of Clubs, and the Lovers indicate to the narrator-observer that the young man has deserted his bride on the day of his wedding feast. The second woman in The Lovers card implies a rival. Unable to decide which bride to choose, the Waverer chooses neither, and makes a forest journey but cannot decide which path to take. Since the coin he throws (the Page of Coins) remains erect in a bush at the foot of an oak, he climbs the tree to discover the best path, only to be blinded by the Sun. Identical twins confusedly gesture to a suspended city, perhaps the “City of All” where all choices are balanced. The Waverer can have the city, but after his long climb, he can think only of his thirst. He decides he cannot choose between two wells but instead wants the source of all water, the sea. A thunderbolt then smashes both tree and city, and Moon reigns. In the end, the Waverer confronts his double, the man prohibited from making a choice when the Waverer had refused to choose his bride.
The tavern section also contains literary montages which combine elements of the stories of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, as well as of Faust, Parsifal, and Oedipus. When the narrator tries to tell his tale, what emerges is Calvino’s literary self-portrait: the King of Clubs, whose scepter resembles a cheap pen, and the Two of Coins (because the coins on the card form an S which the narrator reads as the essential of language, “signification”). The writer encounters unsavory reality (the Devil) and balances the elements with which he deals (the Juggler). Because his is a solitary occupation (the Hermit), the writer must ensure that he does not lose contact with the world about which he writes (the Knight of Swords). The narrator notes, as an afterthought, that paintings could describe his life as easily as does the tarot: Saint Jerome in place of the Hermit, Saint George for the Knight of Swords, Saint Augustine to represent the writer’s restlessness.