In “The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount,” Italo Calvino offers two novellas that dazzle and amuse. As delightfully far-fetched as these novellas are, there’s always a touching humanity about the characters, even those who aren’t exactly human.
Inhuman but Humane
“The Nonexistent Knight” is none other than Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern and of the Others of Corbentraz and Sura, Knight of Selimpia Citeriore and Fez: an empty suit of white armor that speaks with a metallic voice and irritates all the other paladins in Charlemagne’s army by being so fastidious. He puts up with all sorts of madness during the army’s march against the infidels. Notably, his groom Gurduloo doesn’t know of his own existence exists, and therefore takes many names and forms. Another part of the plot involves a young squire named Raimbaut of Roussilon, who means to avenge his father’s death. Not until the fifth chapter do we realize a cloistered nun narrates this story. As more chapters unfold, we realize her true role and find that not as much was left to her imagination as she first asserts
Half-Human but Reconciled
The first-person narrator of “The Cloven Viscount” is much more of a witness than a participant, but maybe that’s due to the even more astonishing sight of his uncle, Viscount Medardo of Terralba, who returns from war after being split in half lengthwise by a cannonball. And he’s in a foul mood! He terrorizes his subjects, who are already faced with grim enough conditions, barely able to survive. There is a leper colony in the neighborhood, and a nearby mountaintop is home to some refugee Huguenots. When Medardo’s overtures to Pamela, a shepherdess, are rejected, his sourness curdles. But hope soon rises when we learn the fate of Medardo’s other half, which had been detained under a pile of battlefield corpses. Soon the happy ending is inevitable—but Calvino’s remarkable inventiveness still is required in order to deliver it.