Tales contrived from grids of tarot cards

This is my review of The Castle Of Crossed Destinies (Vintage Classics) by Italo Calvino.

As in "The Canterbury Tales", a disparate group of travellers share tales, but here the similarity ends, since they have lost the power of speech and are forced to communicate by setting out tarot cards, which Calvino also describes as "arcani".

At first, I found the stories unengaging fairy tales, of the knight errant encounters in forest fair maiden who turns out to be ugly old hag variety, although I had an uneasy sense that I might be missing all sorts of allusions through my ignorance of classical and medieval mythology.

Any interest lay partly in working out or grasping what the succession of cards mean. This is not easy as, particularly for the tales told in the castle, the cards are reproduced in such a small size that it is hard to see what they represent. The set of tarot cards used for the second set of tales from "The Tavern of Crossed Destinies" are drawn a little larger and bolder, so easier to decipher. Although it might have added too much to the cost of the book, it would have been better if each card could have been reproduced at least quarter page size, and positioned at the point in the text where it is mentioned. Although there are a few coloured plates of tarot cards in the middle of the book, they are not the "major players" in the stories.

Also, once I realised that, for the castle stories, cards are laid in two parallel rows or columns to form part of an overall grid, whereas for the tavern stories, each one occupies an overlapping block in the grid, further interest stemmed from noticing how the cards for the end of one story are the beginning of another, and how the same card may represent totally different incidents in separate stories. For instance, a card showing cups could mean the celebration of a wedding, or could signify looking down from a city on rows of tombstones. Although sometimes intriguing, the need to preserve the order of the cards often makes for tales that seem contrived and limited.

Occasionally, a story caught my interest, and I began to see "deeper philosophical layers". This first occurred in the Tale of Astolpho on the Moon: on a mission to retrieve the lost sanity of the irreplaceable warrior Roland, Astolpho is sent to the moon where an endless storeroom preserves "the stories that men do not live, the thoughts that knock once at the threshold of awareness and vanish forever, the particles of the possible discarded in the game of combinations, the solutions that could be reached but are never reached.." Much later, in "The Tale of Seeking and Losing", Parsifal concludes, "The kernel of the world is empty, the beginning of what moves in the universe is the space of nothingness, around absence is constructed what exists, at the bottom of the Grail is the Tao" and he points to the empty rectangle at the centre of the grid of tarot cards. All this may of course leave you cold!

However,the stories seem to me to go seriously off the rails at the end where Calvino tries to tell his own story, which becomes very rambling, including reference to paintings in galleries of St Jerome with his lion and St George with the dragon, of which we are not provided any visual examples to help us appreciate his points, whilst he then presents as a grand finale a story which somehow combines bits of King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

Although I can understand the fascination of weaving stories out of a grid of cards, this book is for me no more than a clever gimmick. Calvino has apparently discarded some tales because he thought they did not work, but it seems to me that most of those retained would have benefited from a thorough redrafting. Often the events are quite rushed and garbled, and the characters two-dimensional (card?!) and so lack the power to arouse any sympathy. Perhaps owing to the translation, the wording is at times very stilted or jarring.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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