Analysis of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Cosmicomics is a collection of linked short narratives written by the celebrated Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923–85). The stories prove to be a unified meditation on scientific theories of the inception and evolution of the universe as seen through the eyes of a narrator known simply as Qfwfq. Despite their scientific basis, the stories deal with such human issues as the nature of desire, love, and loneliness.

Calvino’s parents were both researchers in botany, and when Calvino enrolled in college in 1941 (at the University of Turin, where his father taught) he too intended to pursue a career in science. Eventually, however, he turned to literature and graduated with a degree in letters, but his early scientific background clearly infl uenced Cosmicomics. The stories show Calvino confidently mixing scientific principles with fantasy and imagination, a technique that marks all of his work.

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino / Emilio Ronchini / Mondadori / Getty

The book does not start at the beginning of creation and move toward the present, but it does move through time, marking the passage of ages. Each of its 12 stories begins with a short scientific quote—seemingly lifted from a textbook—and Qfwfq’s response to that quote. In the first tale, Qfwfq relates a time in which the moon was closer to the earth than it is now and how those living on the earth would climb up on the moon to enjoy its different environment. In the story, Qfwfq reveals a desire for the wife of Captain Vhd Vhd, a passion that is unrequited. In the next story, which moves back in time to when the universe was in an earlier state, Qfwfq describes what it was like to live on a nebula. Another story, “All at One Point,” similarly describes the very early claustrophobic moment in the history of the universe in which all of space was contracted to one point.

The story “A Sign in Space” tells of Qfwfq’s desire to make a sign, despite the fact that at that time in the universe no one knew what a sign was. The theme of signs returns in the book’s penultimate story, “The Light-Years,” in which someone else in the universe makes a sign, which causes Qfwfq to question if he is being watched. These stories comment on the human need to communicate, and they illustrate the difficulty we often have when we set out to do so. They also reveal Calvino engaging the literary theory that was popular during his time. Calvino was deeply influenced by thinkers such as the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and theorist Roland Barthes. Saussure was the father of structuralism, a theory that focused on the nature of language and the arbitrariness of what Saussure called the “sign,” or word. The stories’ focus on signs clearly evokes Saussure’s work, and indeed the shortcomings of language haunt the book throughout.

Other stories deal with evolutionary issues such as the movement of organisms on the earth out of water and onto land (in “The Aquatic Uncle”) and the dying out of the dinosaurs (“The Dinosaurs”). In the former story, the narrator’s uncle refuses to leave water and eventually persuades Qfwfq’s girlfriend, Lll, to come and live with him. In “The Dinosaurs,” Qfwfq takes the form of the last dinosaur who is forced to live among a new species, simply called the “New Ones.” These New Ones have heard tales of the once-ferocious race of dinosaurs, but they never suspect they have one in their midst. Eventually Qfwfq accepts his lonely fate as the last of his kind and journeys out on his own, but not before siring a son who will carry on his traits.

Other stories in the book manifest variations on these themes. “Without Colors,” for instance, is another tale of unrequited love for Qfwfq; Calvino uses the coming of colors into the world as the basis for his story. “Games without End” shows Qfwfq as a boy who uses the complexities of the universe, such as the curvature of space, to his advantage in games with his friend Pfwfp. For their rich combination of science and human emotions, these stories are virtually unsurpassed in post–World War II literature. Calvino continued the stories of Qfwfq in his book t zero (1967).

A Brief History of Italian Novels

Bloom, Harold, ed. Italo Calvino. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 2000.
Bondanella, Peter, and Andrea Ciccarelli, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Weiss, Beno. Understanding Italo Calvino. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Categories: Experimental Novels, Literature, Novel Analysis, Short Story

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