The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino (1952, translated from Italian by Archibald Colquhoun, 70 pages)
The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino (1923 to 1985) was originally written as a stand alone work but subsequently became part of his highly regarded Our Ancestors trilogy which also includes Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight. During his life time Calvino was the most translated contemporary Italian writer and was often mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner.
The Cloven Viscount is set in Italy somewhere in the late middle ages. (The title "viscount" was used in a number of ways in Europe and Italy but the over all usage seems to indicate a minor nobility, on the level of the 4th son of a duke). The Viscount goes into battle against the Turks (probably with a bit of research you could pin down the exact time frame of the story) and is cloven into two parts in battle. The story is narrated by his younger nephew. Both parts of the Viscount survive and come to exist as distinct entities with their own personalities. The work feels like a mixture of Borges (to whom Calvino paid great tribute) and Cervantes.
We must accept that an absurd in fact impossible event has happened and is now to be accepted without seeming odd. Given our acceptance of this, the creator of the story is then free to go beyond the restrains of realism to spin his fantasies. The pleasure in this story is in all of the fanciful inventions along the way. One half of the Viscount becomes a figure of great goodness, beautifully dressed , admired by all for his learning and welcome among all citizens. The other half of the viscount begins to roam the country side dressed in rags doing malicious small evil actions where ever he goes. Much of the time the of the good viscount is spending correcting the evil deeds of his worse half. For example, the evil viscount uses a cross bow to shot swallows but not so as to kill them but to cripple and leave them to live out a miserable life. The good viscount tends to the wounds of the injured swallows and soon birds with splints on their legs are seen throughout the area.
For some time the Viscount's crossbow had been used only against swallows, but in such a way only to stun and wound them not kill them. But now were seen in the sky swallows with legs bandaged and wings stuck together and waxed: a whole swarm of swallows so treated were seen prudently flying around together, like convalescents from a bird hospitalThroughout the story Calvino makes use of a seemingly very realistic almost prosaic mode of narration to convey fabulous events and happen stances. One of the themes of the story is about the unification of the personality. The Cloven Viscount does, as befits a story in the picaresque mode, ramble about in its narrative structure but there is a distinct brought to a conclusion plot to it which I will leave interested readers the fun of discovering on their own. We do feel like we are back in the middle ages.
There is a very interesting Wikipedia article on Calvino. He was very far from an ivory tower intellectual. Calvino was a very prolific writer, a renown interpreter of the classics and very active in political organizations including the Italian Communist Party. He fought against the Nazis in WWII in Garibaldi Brigade for almost two years. I think he is most read now for his non realistic fictions like those in Ancestors and for his essays on the classics. The Cloven Viscount was a fun, easy read and made me think a bit. I will in time read the two other works included with Ancestors and am very interested in his literary criticism.