【ACO Book Reviews Open Call】Stephen Mansfield - "The Cloven Viscount"
Stephen Mansfield - "The Cloven Viscount"
Italo Calvino's 1951 novella The Cloven Viscount has a very straightforward premise. While off fighting a war in Bohemia, an Italian viscount is struck by an enemy cannonball that splits him into two perfectly equal halves. These halves are then separately resurrected in the aftermath of the battle. The right side takes on all of the viscount's "evil" qualities and returns to his homeland to wreck havoc, only to eventually be followed by the left side, who has retained all of the viscount's moral goodness.
Like many of Calvino's works, what unfolds from this premise is less a plot-driven narrative and more a series of philosophical ponderings arising from how these two viscounts interact with their various subjects and each other.
The most compelling of these is the subversion of the simple morality tale that is so easily established by the premise. The good half of the viscount arrives home after the bad half has already been terrorizing the populace, and he is initially greeted as a potential savior as his kind acts begin to improve people's lives. But he shortly outlives his welcome, and the limitations of his goodness are revealed.
His main flaw is that his goodness manifests in a set of moral principles about individual action that take precedence over human suffering. When some constables approach him about confronting the evil viscount, he is unwilling to take up arms out of a commitment to pacifism. In the next scene he places flowers on the graves of the fallen rebels without being able to consider his complicity in their demise or the ongoing suffering of others.
Calvino's writing is informed by his experience of the rise and fall of fascism in Italy, but the issue of passivity being mistaken for goodness in the face of evil is something that resonates to this day not only in the realm of politics but also in our day-to-day actions. Morality comes from understanding circumstances and taking action according to what will best help people in those circumstances, not adhering to a strict dogma about individual actions.
Another resonant theme is completeness or the illusion of it. This is most obvious in the nature of the bisected viscount, but it also appears elsewhere in the story, like with the exiled Huguenots who lost their bible and have an incomplete understanding of faith. Incompleteness is not only explored in individuals, but also in a communal context. Many characters are missing something in life without one or both parts of the viscount present, and this supports the general idea that every person we are in community with in some way makes us whole.
The story is narrated by the young nephew of the viscount who relates all of the surreal and horrifying events with matter-of-factness. This creates a darkly comic tone that keeps the emotional heaviness of the events at arm's length. This allows the story to be intellectually resonant and engaging while also being very enjoyable to read.
(Image provided by Stephen Mansfield)