Italo Calvino: The Queen’s Necklace

His name was Fiorenzo, he was unemployed, and he spent his time looking through dumps in the suburbs in search of anything usable. It’s an occupational hazard of people like this that they always nurse a stubborn yearning that one day they will discover treasure. On his regular morning rounds of these fields, Fiorenzo had seen the car set off and the workers run down the embankment to pick something up. And immediately he realized that he had missed a rare, even once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by less than a minute.

Why I read it

We have 8 bookshelves. We need to get rid of three to make room in the house for a new person. Thus: the Great Book Cull of 2018 is underway.

The process of taking down every book from my shelves and deciding its fate has been interesting. Firstly, I realise how little I’ve been reading recently (browsing The Guardian, MetaFilter and Instagram basically sucking up all my time and turning me into a kind of superficially-informed-about-the-news-and-therefore-anxious-all-the-time, low concentration moron). Secondly, I’m still ‘aspirationally buying’ books and then not reading them. Thirdly and as a result: my books have become background ornaments rather than a working collection.

The books have been going into one of three piles: keep, sell/donate, and read-then-decide. The Queen’s Necklace, being short and unthreatening, is the first to get read from the latter category – which, impractically, now fills one shelf, double-stacked. Lord help me.

What it’s about

There are two short stories here, both of which also appear in the larger collection of Calvino’s stories Numbers in the Dark. They feature Pietro and Tommaso, argumentative friends in their 60s who work at a local factory on the outskirts of their Italian village. In the first story, The Queen’s Necklace, the duo find an expensive pearl necklace in a tree on the side of the road, setting off a chain of events. In the second, The Workshop Hen, they compete to win the affection, and hence the freshly-laid eggs, of a chicken that roams the factory where they work, with unintended consequences.

The first story seems unfinished, as if Calvino were just riffing on an idea and seeing where it led, allowing the characters’ responses to stimuli to reveal interesting things about themselves and the world along the way. There’s no resolution about what happens to the necklace, what Tommaso and Pietro decide to do with it, or whether the scheming Fiorenzo will dupe the architect who’s been sent to find the necklace. But there are descriptive phrases of very specific moments or objects that remind me of Roald Dahl’s hypercolour scenes and characters:

All kinds of historic events and upheavals had combined to create [Fiorenzo’s house]: the low brick walls, half in ruins, were part of an old army stable, later closed upon the decline of the cavalry; the Turkish toilet and an indelible piece of graffiti were the result of later use as an armoury for the training corps […] He completed the effect by replacing half the roof with an old rolldown shutter found in the vicinity and apparently twisted in some explosion.

And Calvino often transitions from minutiae to grander statements and metaphors:

Fiorenzo now saw the city as a world of which he could not be a part, just as the hunter does not think of becoming the forest, but only of plundering its wildlife, plucking a ripe berry, procuring shelter against the rain. So for Fiorenzo the city’s wealth meant the cabbage stalks left lying on the cobbles of district markets after the stalls are taken down; the edible grasses that garnish the suburban tramlines; the public benches that could be sawn up piece by piece for firewood […]

But in addition to the social commentary there’s humour running through both stories, mostly from Pietro and Tommaso and the way they compete without wanting to admit they’re doing it. Them getting stuck, each holding one half of the necklace, not wanting to let go but not wanting to admit they want it; precipitating a situation where the factory bosses think they’re using a chicken to smuggle messages from the workers’ union; Tommaso hiding the pearls in his lunch and then having to go hungry to avoid exposing them.

Keep or donate?

Donate. I enjoyed the book and it performed that revelatory thing books do: to ‘be an axe for the frozen sea within us‘. Not in the ‘wound or stab us’ context of Kafka’s quote, but like this: that it reminds me of what it is to look at the world and see it not as an Instagram photo but as onion-layers: the superficial, then behind that the motivations and the meanings. It has nudged my brain back in a good direction. Now I will pass it on.

This book was mostly read in the bath. I have moved two or three times (depending on how you count) since the last post.


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