johnsu01 (johnsu01) wrote,

The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount

Front Cover The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount are two novellas by Italo Calvino, packaged together as one book. Both novellas incorporate stories we've heard before, told featuring impossible characters.

The titles correspond literally to their novella's main characters. The Nonexistent Knight stars a knight who, inside of his armor, does not exist, though he takes meals and otherwise behaves as if he does. This knight is assigned a squire who behaves as if he does not exist, even though he does. The story is set in a world where these conditions are apparently common. Though we hear only the story featuring Sir Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern and his squire Gurduloo (also known as Omoboo, Martinzoo, etc..), apparently there are others like them.

World conditions were still confused in the era when this took place. It was not rare then to find names and thoughts and forms and institutions that corresponded to nothing in existence. But at the same time the world was polluted with objects and capacities and persons who lacked any name or distinguishing mark. It was a period when the will and determination to exist, to leave a trace, to rub up against all that existed, was not wholly used since there were many who did nothing about it --- from poverty or ignorance or simply from finding things bearable as they were --- and so a certain amount was lost into the void. (33)

The Cloven Viscount features a viscount who has literally been cloven in two. His two halves wander about the world. "Every meeting between two creatures in this world is a mutual rending," says the bitter and evil half, who is continually cleaving in half everything he finds, inflicting his own fate on all the squirrels, trees, etc.

There's plenty that's familiar in these stories --- the knight has to quest to prove his worth, the poor peasants are constantly terrorized by their evil ruler --- but the main characters are utterly unbelievable. Armor cannot walk around with nothing inside it (despite the persuasiveness of the simple statement, "for in times when armor was necessary even for a man who existed, how much more was it for one who didn't"), and a man chopped in half lengthwise cannot continue to hop around and rule a kingdom.

But the unfamiliar runs in both directions from expectations. Knights are supposed to be off slaying dragons and having magical adventures, but the nonexistent knight and his fellows fight in silly, prearranged wars where extensive paperwork must be completed to arrange a duel with a member of the other army. Their primary duties consist of things like inspecting the kitchen. Outside of the biological independence of the viscount's two halves, there is nothing fantastic about his kingdom either.

The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount are two great stories. You'll laugh with the lepers (did I mention there's a leper colony?) and cry with all God's cloven creatures. If you don't understand the insults being hurled at each other by the opposing armies, don't worry --- translators are provided. Just lay back, let your disbelief nap in the hammock, and enjoy these twists on the traditional tales of sword and sorcery.
Tags: book, calvino, review
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