Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107
The narrative of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is divided among alternating chapters that follow the story of the Reader, expressed as the second-person “you.” Interspersed chapters each present a separate embedded narrative, the start of another book that the Reader encounters on his search for the remainder of the book he first began. At the end of chapter 1, which reflects on the types and practice of reading, the Reader settles into reading Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, only to find that the book does not progress beyond the first chapter because of a printer’s error.
Chapter 2 picks up where the reading is interrupted for the first time, after the first chapter. So begins the Reader’s search for the rest of the book, which persists for the remainder of the novel and brings him into contact with various characters and partial texts. The first notable character he encounters, in the bookstore to which he has gone to exchange his faulty book, is Ludmilla Vipiteno, another reader. Here he also encounters his first false lead, as he is told that the book he is reading is not Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler but Tazio Bazakbal’s Outside the town of Malbork.
Just as the Reader settles into Outside the town of Malbork, his reading is again interrupted, this time by a large section of uncut blank pages. In chapter 3, the frustrated Reader tries to contact Ludmilla to see whether her replacement copy has the same problem. Instead, the Reader speaks only with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, a critical reader, and her friend Irnerio, a nonreader. Lotaria leads the Reader to Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, who explains that Bazakbal’s Outside the town of Malbork is really Ukko Ahti’s Leaning from the steep slope. Uzzi-Tuzii begins to read his copy aloud, translating as he goes along.
The reading experience is again interrupted, though, and chapter 4 begins with Ludmilla’s entrance just as the text of Leaning from the steep slope breaks off. Lotaria enters shortly thereafter with her readers’ group and claims that the novel is not, in fact, Leaning from the steep slope but is, instead, Without fear of wind or vertigo by Vorts Viljandi (possibly Ukko Ahti’s pseudonym). The group then begins a reading of Without fear of wind or vertigo.
The group reading ends when, at the start of chapter 5, Lotaria throws wide open a critical discussion of the text; the readers’ outcries parody academic and critical responses to literature. The Reader, fed up, travels to the publishing house to try to sort out the confusion and encounters the editor, Mr. Cavedagna. This curious character explains that the true source of the confusion is a translator named Ermes Marana, who has forged Without fear of wind or vertigo from Belgian author Bertrand Vandervelde’s French text Looks down in the gathering shadows.
After discovering that Looks down in the gathering shadows is not the text the Reader is after, in chapter 6 he obtains from Mr. Cavedagna a copy of Ermes Marana’s dossier. The Reader learns that Marana is a consultant for the Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works, through which he has produced a book of beginnings to accommodate the sultana’s insatiable desire to read. The Reader wonders whether the sultana is really Ludmilla, as the similarities are difficult to ignore. Also in the dossier is the start of yet another book, In a network of lines that enlace, which the Reader flips through while waiting to meet with Ludmilla to learn more.
In chapter 7, the Reader arrives at Ludmilla’s apartment to find not Ludmilla but Irnerio, who is visiting. After entertaining considerations on the nature of literacy and the function of books, during which the Reader learns that Ludmilla and Marana are well acquainted, the narrative shifts perspective to regard more closely the Other Reader, Ludmilla. After Irnerio leaves, the Reader and the Other Reader engage in a sexual tryst, then have an argument, after which the Reader begins reading another of Marana’s forgeries: In a network of lines that intersect.
The reader later visits Silas Flannery, author of In a network of lines that intersect. The text of chapter 8 comes from Flannery’s diary, in which he muses over the young woman he sees reading every morning. This leads him to reflect on different forms of reading, specifically those of Lotaria and Ludmilla. The Reader’s copy of In a network of lines that intersect is then stolen by a group of fanatics, and Flannery gives the Reader a copy of Takakumi Ikoka’s On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, telling the Reader that this is really his story’s source (though this claim is false).
The plot takes unusual turns in chapter 9, as the Reader continues to pursue the lost fragments of his original book. Here he encounters Lotaria, who he now learns is acting as a double double-agent for both the revolution and the counterrevolution in Ataguitania. In a land of banned books and false identities, no leads can be trusted, and after Corinna confiscates the Reader’s copy of On the carpet of leaves, she replaces it with Calixto Bandera’s Around an empty grave; in Ataguitania, books can circulate only with false dust jackets.
In chapter 10, the Reader finds that he has joined the (counter)revolution and is now himself working as a double agent. In a covert meeting with author Anatoly Anatolin, the Reader receives a copy of the banned text What story down there awaits its end?, which he is told is a version of Bandera’s Around an empty grave. However, he is no closer to reaching his goal of finding If on a winter’s night a traveler and comes to realize the futility of his search.
The Reader, having given up his long quest, returns in chapter 11 to his hometown and goes to the library to try to retrieve copies of each of the ten books. In the library, he encounters eight other readers who expound on their theories of the reading experience and prompt the Reader to write down a list of the titles for which he is searching. He notes that all stories begin with a traveler and address the cycle of life and death. In chapter 12, the Reader and the Other Reader are married, and the Reader finally reaches the conclusion of If on a winter’s night a traveler just as it is time to turn out the lights and go to bed.