Wang Xiaobo on the Limitless Mind of Italo Calvino
“Literature has infinite potential. What could be wrong with that?”
A friend sent me a book, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, which I am currently reading. The book comprises a series of lecture notes. But before having the chance to give the lectures or even finish the manuscript, the author died. The lecture notes are organized according to the following table of contents: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity.
The last piece, “Consistency,” was left unwritten; which is why I have been scratching my head all day wondering what he could have written, what is “consistency”? According to Calvino, literature will continue to flourish in the next one thousand years and these six lines of literary heritage will expand far and wide. I have always liked Calvino and after reading this book, I like him even more.
Calvino’s Our Ancestors is beloved by all who read it. This was a work from his younger days. I think it fits under the rubric of lightness. In his middle age, he began to explore literature’s infinite potentials. I have read a work representing this period, Invisible Cities—a book that isn’t necessarily liked by all who read it. It would be too much to ask for everyone to like all his books, but I think you should at least appreciate his idea: literature has infinite potential. What could be wrong with that?
Sometime ago, a friend read my works and commented: it seems like there are still new ways to write a novel—the remark left me in a sweat: I haven’t even begun to explore the infinite and am still far from catching up with Calvino. I thought that my friend’s point was problematic—had he not been a PhD in the literature department but rather an ordinary reader, it would not have been as alarming.
Mr. Editor asked me to write a little piece for a teahouse chat. I ended up talking about Calvino’s literary heritage, not really a topic suitable for a cup of tea. To be honest, I don’t know what I could chat about in a teahouse. I don’t have cats or dogs, and I certainly don’t own a car. When other people are playing with their cats and dogs, I am either tinkering with my computer or thinking about literature—if you want to listen to me talk about computers, I can say a thing or two.
Right now, in Zhongguancun, you can get 8MB of memory for two hundred and fifty yuan, way too cheap… but that is probably an even less suitable topic for the teahouse. Perhaps I will get a cat or a dog and buy a car, so that I can torment myself—by the way, the prices of cars are truly shameless. A low-end Korean model costs three hundred thousand and up, a price unheard of anywhere in the world. As for cats and dogs, I consider them meat. I have eaten one cat, five dogs, this was more than twenty years ago. From the perspective of cat and dog lovers, I am a cannibal. Therefore, I can only talk about Calvino…
Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a story that goes like this: Marco Polo stands before Genghis Khan, describing to him every city he came across on his journey east. Every city is a crystal clear symbol. After reading the book, I had a dream, each of the cities was like a strangely shaped sky lantern floating in nothingness. An ordinary reader would say, great, I see the city, now tell me the story of that city—but for Calvino’s limitless mind, telling a story would not have been hard.
However, he does not tell a single story, he just continues to describe new cities. Even until the very end of the book, he isn’t done giving examples of cities. I get what Calvino was trying to do, more or less: an author wants to incorporate all the elements that make up a work of fiction: it should contain lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and finally consistency.
With all these elements at play, any story will turn out interesting and satisfactory to all readers. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, but it must be tried—the reason is to ensure that we will not run out of books to read in the next millennium. I don’t think this is a topic that very many people will find interesting—unfortunately, it’s all I know.
Excerpted from Pleasure of Thinking: Essays, by Wang Xiaobo, translated from the Chinese by Yan Yan. Published by Astra House. Translation copyright © 2023 by Yan Yan. All rights reserved.