The Castle of Crossed Destinies

by Italo Calvino

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Critical Context

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Like his other works, Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies is considered fantasy because it describes the imaginative, the odd, and the visionary. It is, however, semiotic fantasy, since it uses tarot pictures as signs with which to construct the narrative. Its characters are even denied the use of words, which are merely the most conventional signs. Accompanying gestures are the only means, aside from the series of cards, that Calvino’s characters have for telling stories which must be told.

Nonverbal signs interested Calvino throughout his life, and the challenge of constructing this book from two decks of tarot cards, a fifteenth century set by Bonifacio Bembo (for the castle narratives) and a larger, complete eighteenth century set printed in Marseilles, France (for the tavern stories), consumed many frustrating hours. In part, Calvino wanted to prove that such a work could be written; he did so when the castle section was first published in Tarocchi: Il mazzo visconteo di Bergamo e New York (1969; Tarots: The Visconti Pack in Bergamo and New York, 1975). Calvino explored related semiotic ideas in Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968), Le citta invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974), and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981). Umberto Eco, his countryman, has brought semiotics to the mystery novel in ll nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983). The French semiologist Roland Barthes noted that “everything signifies,” that the smallest gesture and the most profound words carry meaning far deeper than surface appearance or literal content, and Calvino’s semiotic fantasy hyperbolizes or exaggerates the communication process upon which every living thing relies. The imprecision of the process merely reflects the doubt and insecurity of those who use it.

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