I’m not a scientist. I’m interested in science — I read popular science, books on physics and ecology and neurology — but I don’t have the education to understand the math of it, the beams and girders that make it real (or even hypothetical.) So when a tiny meteorite of a book like this falls into my hands, that combines physics and astronomy and biology and paleontology and chemistry with sprightly prose and velvety humor and a deep understanding of human nature, well, I think two things. First: oh, boy! Second: who could have written this besides Italo Calvino?

Many of these stories reach far back into the beginning of the history of the universe. Calvino gives human life (love, jealousy, family relationships) and a face (?) and a name (Qfwfq, Ursula H’x) to such creatures as particles, galaxies, molluscs, coelacanths, and the very-crowded group living on the single point just before the Big Bang.

I read the first few stories willingly enough (it’s Calvino, and I’ll go anywhere with Calvino), but with a certain amount of bewilderment. “The Distance of the Moon,” for instance, a story about the moon’s separation from the earth, and the separation of an illicit relationship that accompanies it, was beautiful, but not quite clear to me.

But when I got to “All At One Point,” I began to understand. This is the story of everyone (and this, of course, would include you and me, since it includes all matter) who was living at the single point just before the Big Bang.

Naturally we were all there — old Qfwfq said — where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?

Qfwfq names a few people he knew — de XuaeauX, the marvelous Mrs. Ph(i)nk0 — and then talks about a family of “immigrants” called the Z’zu:

The others had also wronged the Z’zus, to begin with, by calling them “immigrants,” on the pretext that, since the others had been there first, the Z’zus had come later. This was mere unfounded prejudice — that seems obvious to me — because neither before nor after existed, nor amy place to immigrate from, but there were those who insisted that the concept of “immigrant”  could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.

So the seed is there from the very beginning. And yet so is the hope: what causes the Big Bang is a spontaneous movement of love from Mrs. Ph(i)nk0, who says, “Oh, if only I had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” and in that broad movement of generosity, flings apart their single point into all time and space. Ah, I thought. It’s Pandora’s box: the selfishness, the class difference, the racism, but also the love and the light.

The next story, “Without Color,” about the way the Earth develops an atmosphere and therefore color, is an Orpheus and Eurydice story. “The Dinosaurs” looks at indigenous people (I thought of Native Americans, but it could be anyone anywhere) and their assimilation into the modern world. “The Form of Space” (my personal favorite) is a classic love triangle. Choose your favorite novel, and there they are, the three of them, falling through space in parallel lines, and never the three shall meet (except that space is curved, glory hallelujah.)

And yet the stories are not “really” about myth or adultery or abandonment or growing up, with a little pop science for protective coloration. They are just as much about physics and biology and astronomy as they are about people, and just as much about people as they are about the sky and earth and sea and creatures. To Calvino, it all matters. It all makes him think, and laugh, and see, and he lets us in on the treat, too.

Translated, beautifully, by William Weaver.

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10 Responses to Cosmicomics

  1. I see symmetry in some of the names – Qfwfq de XuaeauX. I also love such stories – that which provides us with an understanding about ourselves, especially those esoteric and scientific knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I read Dan Brown, whatever his weaknesses might be. I love science the same way as you do. thanks for giving me more about an author I’ve heard.

    • Jenny says:

      There’s no one like Calvino! I don’t know what the symmetry is for (except that there is so much of it in nature), but I noticed it, too.

  2. krismerino says:

    “They are just as much about physics and biology and astronomy as they are about people, and just as much about people as they are about the sky and earth and sea and creatures.”

    I have always LOVED Calvino and just recently picked up a copy of this book and am reading my way through, falling more and more in love with Calvino with each flip of the page. I had read bits and pieces before, but never in order, as a whole. The stories are, quite literally, universal, aren’t they, and when read together they are much, much more profound.

    What a great review!

    • Jenny says:

      Well put! They are indeed universal. I’ve loved every Calvino I’ve read, and every one is completely different. I’m reading Baron in the Tree next, and I can’t wait!

  3. Wow, this sounds really strange. I’ve never heard of Calvino before this post, I should check out some of his books, they seem an interesting way of exploring science.

    • Jenny says:

      I wouldn’t recommend this as a way of exploring science, necessarily, though you could look at it that way. And his other books aren’t like this! Each one is completely different. I started with a book about books (If on a winter’s night a traveler…), went on to a book about travel and cities (Invisible Cities), then read his collection of Italian folk tales, and now this. All utterly different, all completely glorious.

  4. This is a favorite of mine, although I guess I have not read it for a long time. I sure remembered the noodles, though.

    t zero is more of the same, more Qfwfq.

    • Jenny says:

      Calvino is just so sunny, with that knowledge and laughter bubbling under whatever he writes. Baron in the Tree is next for me, and I am confident it will be a joy.

  5. David Britt says:

    I prefer reading news about current events.. i have no much understanding on science and I find it boring to read. Though i’m not familiar with this writer it seem his book is very interesting.

  6. Pingback: Top 10 GOP Moments of the Year (Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire) « ocekutinotyb

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