Friday, August 24, 2012

Short Take: "The Distance of the Moon," Italo Calvino

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon," the opening piece in his 1965 Cosmicomics collection, is a gem of a short story. It's built around a clever fantasy conceit, which Calvino plays out beautifully. The setting is a time when the moon was so close to the earth that visiting its surface was a daily occurrence. For some it's even part of their livelihood: the moon is the source of lunar cheese, which can be refined into a delicacy. The story's opening passages have the narrator relating everything with a sense of childlike joy. The reader is caught up in the fun of shifting oneself to the moon's gravitational pull, and the slapstick travails of gathering the cheese. The narrator also relates the hilarious spectacle of a young girl finding herself caught in the moon's gravity, and getting covered with small surface sea life that was caught as well. But for all these scenes of almost magical wonder, the intrigues of the human heart are a constant: infatuations, jealousies, and infidelities. The more things are different, it seems, the more they remain the same. But the centerpiece of the story is the moon's ultimate pulling away from its proximity to the earth. At this point, the story shifts somewhat into suspense narrative, as getting people away from the moon's surface and back to earth becomes the overriding concern. Not everyone makes it--at least not at first. Calvino takes the opportunity to evoke the wistfulness of being homesick, as well as the thwarted passions of lovers who are now rather literally star-crossed. And finally, Calvino evokes nostalgia: the narrator looks back on his experiences with the moon as a treasured time. It's one that will always have a place in his heart. The story is science-fiction fantasy at its best. The exotic setting isn't used to spice up tired adventure-story conventions. The reader is instead made to look at universal emotions and experiences in a new way. The sprightliness of Calvino's prose, translated into English by William Weaver, is the icing on this cake of fresh imagination.

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