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Books: Card Tricks

3 minute read
Paul Gray

THE CASTLE OF CROSSED DESTINIES by ITALO CALVINO Translated by WILLIAM WEAVER 129 pages. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.$10.

Idea: a novel in which all of the characters have been struck mute. The only way they can communicate is through the pictures and symbols on a pack of tarot cards. That seems the borrowed inspiration of a green writer who has been rifling Borges or Nabokov—a novelist who depends on conjury, not creativity. Yet the tarot notion comes from Italian Fabulist Italo Calvino, 53, who has been producing such chimerical conceptions in his books for over 30 years. What is more important, he has consistently fleshed them out in original, whimsical and unsettling ways.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies has more up its sleeve than card tricks. Its voiceless strangers have lost their way in a dark forest straight out of Dante. Their lodging resembles a late medieval castle, but it may also be a metaphor for history: “… an inn of passage, where people unknown to one another live together for one night…” The guests are figments in the Western narrative dream of Chaucer and Boccaccio.

The host presents a tarot pack, the set painted by Bonifacio Bembo for Milanese nobility in the 15th century. (The book includes eight color reproductions of the cards and a running marginal commentary of black-and-white illustrations.) Each guest seeks his story in the 78-card deck — an allegorical pageant of wands, coins, swords, clubs and human figures. As the cards are turned face up, some famous identities make their entrances.

Faust is present, as are Roland and Helen of Troy. The interchanges grow more complex until the images no longer simply reveal tales.

Scanned in any direction, the cards create still more lives.

At this point, Calvino begins a fresh deal.

This time, both the guests and their setting (a tavern) are seedier. So are the cards, the so-called Marseille tarots first printed in the 18th century. More mythic figures appear among the guests, but the stories also take on sooty overtones of industrialism and hints of the modern totalitarian state. The author seeks his own story in the pack. “Perhaps,” he ventures, “the moment has come to admit that only tarot number one honestly depicts what I have succeeded in being: a juggler, or conjurer, who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, inter changing them, achieves a certain num ber of effects.”

Some will take the narrator’s wry self-reading at face value and ignore him for writers who practice legerdemain less self-consciously. Yet Calvino’s specialability is to perform magic by ex posing it. At first, the patent artifice of The Castle of Crossed Destinies demands disbelief. By the end, an odd conviction displaces skepticism: maybe life really is all in the cards.

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