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In honour of Italo Calvino, the godfather of magical realism


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"What harbor can receive you more securely than a great library?," says Calvino in If On a Winter's Night a Traveller. And there is every ounce of truth in what he says. Today marks the Italian's 94th birthday, and his words are as relevant now as they were nearly 40 years ago. 

He is the father of modern magical realism as we know it. He hooked me in a few years back with Invisible Cities - a tale of 55 fictious cities told by the traveller Marco Polo. That synopsis holds a certain surrealism in itself, but Calvino always managed to bring the surreal and blend it with the real world, inviting the average reader to connect with his stories on some magical level. 

Image courtesy of Tullio Saba via Flickr

To say it is a shame that he died at such a young age is an understatement; he was just 61 years old and undoubtedely had many more years of wisdom left in him. One can only wonder what Calvino would have written with the the 21st century as his backdrop.

He had the ability to catapult you into whatever time he was writing from - his 1954 Into the War was an autobiographical tale set in the summer of 1940 when Calvino was just a teenager and Europe was at war. You find yourself nestled in the small northern Italian town where he grew up, conscripted as an Avanguardisti for Mussolini's National Fascist Party. 

Into the War was early Calvino, before he moved on to the magical and surreal. Yet, it showed how versatile he was as a writer, combining literary with non-fiction. The result: a fantastic look into the world of an adolescent in a country teetering on war, and a coming of age classic that many teenagers can resonate with - to fight or to resist. 

The older Calvino got, the more his works became entwined with science. He is one of only a few literary figures that was enthused by the advent of science. This was prevalent in his compilation of works now known as The  Complete Cosmicomics - a book split into four sections: Cosmicomics, Time and the Hunter, Priscilla and T-Zero, where you are taken through the history of the creation of the universe by the cosmic know-it-all Qfwfq. It was at this point when Calvino was at his most prolific, penetrating the social boundaries between science and literature, and serving as a bridging point for the general reader into the world of natural biology, quantum physics and organic chemistry through fable-like stories.

His absence in this world is a great tragedy, but all good things must come to an end. Perhaps his most contemporary work and one that will remain timeless is his 1991 Why Read the Classics? Published shortly after his death, his last work embodies and preserves everything Calvino, and is essential reading for anyone who loves the evergreen nature of the classics in literature - and so his essence lives on, as do his works, and the classics he loved so much.

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