The Nonexistent Knight
by Italo Calvino
“The art of writing tales consists in an ability to draw the rest of life from the little one has understood of it; but life begins again at the end of the page, and one realises that one has knew nothing whatsoever.”
Genre: Allegorical – fantasy novel
Last week, while cleaning my shelves, I found a book I had read previously but I couldn’t remember the story very well, The Nonexistent Knight, a pretty short book written by Italo Calvino; you can easily read it in just one day as I did.
The story of this Nonexistent knight is told by a nun, and it is a sophisticated parody of medieval knighthood that we heard about at high school during our literature class.
In the story, a few famous characters (knights obvs.) from the French medieval poem La Chanson de Roland are mentioned here, and they are described in such a different way from the original poem.
The idea we may have of knighthood, and of knights in general, was given to us by the poems we studied at school and also by movies, where the character of the knight represents all the good and marvellous virtues and good qualities a man should have.
Well, here we have a sort of realistic, though ironic, representation of the reality behind the medieval poem; in other words, the author shows to us that a knight had certain duties according to his grade, position and ability that made him appear not so heroic after all.
The life of a knight does not depend only on adventures in faraway lands, beautiful ladies to rescue, or dangerous dragons to defeat, no, in this short novel we can see how human these knights were.
They smell, they ate and drunk, they talked about women not in a poetic way as they do in poems, they were not always – some of them never – brave, if they could they avoid to fight.
The difference between the idyllic knights, such as Lancelot for example, and the realistic ones of the story is mainly given through the dialogues between a young knight just arrive at the camp and an older one.
One of the relevant aspects I noticed is the idea that we, people of the present, have on the importance of names and/or titles.
I’ll make an example to be clear; if you meet a lawyer or a doctor you may think, in the majority of the cases, that this person is rich, clever, cultured, important and ambitious.
It may be true, sure, but you are influenced by the good idea the society gave to these professions, and if instead you meet a plumber, well, you don’t think that he studied at Uni, he probably left school as soon as possible.
Generally speaking, we tend to tag people according to their professions, the countries they come from etc., while we should simply have the desire to know them without judging them at first glance.
The Nonexistent status given to the protagonist is, for me, the message that the author wanted to leave; if the medieval knight described in poems doesn’t exist, if he is just a fictional character, and the real knights were as normal and boring as any person, then the main protagonist, who considers himself a proper knight, like those of the poems, cannot exist.
He lives with the certainty of his nobility ( noble not just as a social status but also as a representation of his good qualities) and of his chivalry, and given that these are things that exist and belong only in the poems of the past, then he is not real too.
You can say invisible if you prefer, but it is not correct, because if you are invisible it means that sooner or later you may have the chance to be seen, to be visible, but if you are not real, if you do not exist, then you will remain in this condition.
This message, concept is easier to understand while reading the book; the idea of existence, of being real, and of identity mainly are represented and clarified with more than one character, each one with his/her particular characteristics.
I do recommend it, and if you studied Italian or are studying it this is a perfect book to read.
Easy, short, and profound.