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The Watcher and Other Stories by Italo…

The Watcher and Other Stories

by Italo Calvino

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Almost every Calvino work has at least one great story or segment. The titular story of Under the Jaguar Sun is excellent, the beginning chapters of Mr. Palomar are great, The Road to San Giovanni has a great essay on garbage, even the subpar collection Numbers in the Dark features a story I consider excellent ("Wind in a City"). This is to say nothing of Calvino's works that are brilliant throughout, foremost among them Invisible Cities and If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Sadly, The Watcher and Other Stories does not feature a standout moment. Instead we receive three longer-than-normal short stories, all of which are thematically similar, though none of the three explore the shared theme in interesting ways.

The Watcher is the weakest of the three stories in my opinion, featuring a rambling and disjointed narrative that never gains any momentum. The premise of a communist monitoring a polling station in the a huge hospital complex, full of both the physically and mentally impaired, has more promise than Calvino manages to manifest. There are some strong segments where the main character muses on democracy while watching the inhabitants of the hospital, shunned by most of society, cast their votes. Such imagery is watered down with a tangential relationship story that never resolves, political history inserted in an inorganic manner, and an ending that attempts to establish a final feeling of tranquility, but that failed to do so in my experience.

The second story, Smog, has a more focused narrative, but by its end it was just as underwhelming as The Watcher. A man moves to a city to start a new job and finds that it's impossible to keep anything clean. He struggles with this feeling of uncleanliness, that is the focus of his work as well. His girlfriend manages to remain unbesmirched, but the main character takes little comfort in this. In the end though he finds a little oasis of cleanliness out in the countryside. The main problem that I had with this story is that it's not at all clear what the constant dirtiness is supposed to represent: is it politics, or loss of idealism, or class issues, or stress, or actual pollution, or what? The story contains references to all of these things, so it's all but impossible to parse, a fact not made any easier when Calvino introduces the specter of nuclear war as well. I thing the best guess I have for what the smog is supposed to represent is the blanket topic of "modern concerns," the problem being that, not only is that topic so broad as to be rendered nebulous, but Calvino fails to say anything new or interesting about it.

The Argentine Ant is possibly the strongest work in this collection, but remains unimpressive. When a man, his wife, and their infant son move to Argentina they find that their house- and indeed, all the surrounding houses- are infested with ants. The different neighbors have all adopted different approaches to dealing with the pests, from the neighbors that try to block off the invaders, to the neighbor that creates elaborate machines to destroy them, to the neighbor that just attempts to ignore them. Here, just as with the symbolism in Smog, the symbolism of the ants seems to be generic instead of specific: daily worries is what I think they're intended to represent. The ants are what get into the kitchen and ruin your food, they're what makes your baby cry, they're what keep you from sleeping soundly at night. The neighbors show us some of the strategies people adapt to defeat their daily worries, but the truth is you'll never be able to do away with such worries entirely. There are places of temporary respite, like the beach, but the problems will be waiting for you when you come back. These are pretty uninteresting thoughts about your everyday troubles. The ending also rang false, mimicking the ending of Smog note for note despite it being a strange way to end the story in terms of tone.

Nothing great here, unfortunately. Check out Calvino's other collections and give this one a pass unless you're a devoted fan. ( )
  BayardUS | Jan 10, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Italo Calvinoprimary authorall editionscalculated
Colquhoun, ArchibaldTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weaver, WilliamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156949520, Paperback)

The three long stories in this volume show the range and virtuosity of Italy’s most imaginative writer. “Like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino dreams perfect dreams for us” (John Updike, New Yorker).Translated by William Weaver and Archibald Colquhoun. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:49 -0400)

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