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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Si par une nuit d'hiver un voyageur

Si par une nuit d'hiver un voyageur (Poche) - Italo Calvino You gaze, confounded, at your laptop, vainly trying to find a way to review this so-called novel, which you, an anglophone, have perversely read in French, not the native language either of yourself or of the author. Your companion notices your perplexity and tries to help, or, possibly, to confuse you further.

"It's beautifully written," she says. "But it has no heart."

"Mais chère Lectrice, how do you know?" you ask. "You have read If on a winter's night, a traveller, while I have read Si par une nuit d'hiver un voyageur. Neither one is the original, Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore. And this is just the beginning. Many portions of the book are supposedly translated from other languages: Japanese, Spanish, and, indeed, French. I assume that Calvino, an inventive and gifted writer, made their origin, and the fact that they had been translated, clear in the style. But they have in their turn been translated, and how can I know which infelicities are due to Calvino's fictitious translators, and which to the real translator? Who, to make things yet more complicated, is different in your case and mine."

Intent on your disquisition, you have closed your eyes, the better to see the bewildering maze of linguistic connections you are trying to imagine. Now, you open them again and find a different woman sitting in front of you.

"I am Lotaria," she smiles. "There was a matter which urgently required my sister's presence, but luckily I happened to be passing by. And, let me tell you, the situation is far worse than you imagine. Even Calvino's book is not the original. He has only translated it from the true source, composed in the language of Cimmerian."

"But this is ridiculous!" you protest. "There is no such language. It is merely one of the many fanciful creations of the author. And even if it were true, how could you possibly know?"

"Because I wrote it," says Lotaria calmly. "And not only the book, I invented the language as well."

"Impossible," you scoff. "Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with invented languages will know at once that no such thing could be done. A newly minted language is crude, coarse, lacking the patina, the web of associations that comes from long usage and a rich literary tradition. Open any book in Esperanto or Klingon; you will surely agree with me, and desist from these absurd suppositions."

"But I did not work alone," says Lotaria imperturbably. "Please allow me to demonstrate." She turns your laptop towards her, and quickly types URLs, codes, passwords. A few seconds later, the screen displays a page subtitled INSTITUTE OF CIMMERIAN STUDIES. Above it is a line in an unknown script. She clicks on a link, then another.

"I have a large and well-qualified team at my command," she continues, as her fingers continue to type. "Lacey, Laetita and Laine spent twenty years developing the theory of Proto-Cimmerian, a language which they have traced back as far as the common ancestor it shares with Cimbrian. Lakshmi, Lamila and Lamorna have composed a tantalizingly incomplete series of fragments in Early, Middle and Late Archaic Cimmerian; they have diligently reconstructed the course of a major vowel shift and the loss of both the dual and the aorist forms of the Cimmerian verb. Some of their poems - alas, all unfinished - are quite moving. Larissa, Laurel and Lavinia did a splendid job of creating Medieval Cimmerian. Their paper on sprachbund effects and grammatical links to Estonian and Saami is a true classic."

"By the time we reach the seventeenth century, there was ample ground to build on when the first great Cimmerian authors appear. Leah, Lena and Lenore invented the romantic Cimmerian verse-epic, using a form, the ostavino, unique to the language, while Lesley, Lillian and Linda laid the foundations for the heavier philosophical zaktrinva, which gained ascendancy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Linnet, Lisa and Liv have done sterling work here, documenting the bitter rivalry between the Northern and Southern schools; Lois, Lorelei and Loren went as far as composing eighteen whole novels, one of them nearly a thousand pages long. By the time we reach the present day, it was easy for me, ably assisted by Louise, Lorraine and Luana, to write the book you incorrectly attribute to Calvino. Any scholar of Cimmerian will immediately see the many allusions and borrowings from earlier works. Why are you staring at my breasts?"

By way of answer, you lean forward and nimbly remove the wig from her head; released from captivity, her long, auburn hair swirls around her. "Jessica Q. Rabbit!" you exclaim. "How could I not have guessed that you were involved?"

She shrugs becomingly. "And so?"