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Italo Calvino: Il visconte dimezzato (The Cloven Viscount)

Calvino’s second novel sees him moving away from neorealism and into the territory that he is known for, namely the fable. The influences here are Cervantes rather than the traditional Italian realists. The Don Quixote of this novel, set in the seventeenth century, is the Viscount Medardo di Terralba, with his Sancho Panza being a squire named Curzio. They are in Bohemia, fighting for the Austrians against the Turks. On the first day of battle, the Viscount is split in half by a cannonball, both physically and, as it turns out, psychologically. The doctors save him but the half Viscount that initially returns home is the bad half (shades of Jekyll and Hyde, of course). Murder and torture are what keeps him amused. He burns down part of his own castle. He banishes his nurse to a leper colony. He hangs peasants for no reason. He abuses his father. And, of course, he takes great pleasure in cutting people in half. However, the other half of his body, left for dead on the battlefield, is very much alive and is also very good. This half slowly makes his way back home, spending time doing good deeds on the way – helping widows and orphans, the sick and the maim.

But it is not just the Viscount who is split. Many of the other characters also have ambiguous personalities, from the carpenter who builds a pipe organ but also gallows to Pamela, the young woman both halves of the Viscount falls in love with, who can be both sweet and innocent as well as somewhat less sweet and innocent. Of course, in the end, the two halves are joined together and end up being just an ordinary viscount. Pamela marries him but his nephew, who has been the narrator of the story, is not convinced that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Publishing history

First published 1952 by Einaudi
First published in English 1962 by Random House