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Literature : Review

Nanni Balestrini's Tristano

by Jane Yong Kim

A novel in need of 109,027,350,432,000 readers.

Tristan and Iseult, ca. 1240. German. Tempera on parchment.

Nanni Balestrini’s Tristano is a project realized, though sixty years after its inception. When this experimental novel was first published in 1966, the author was able to get only one version of it printed. He had wanted 109,027,350,432,000 different versions.

Now, the flexibilities of digital printing technology have enabled his project to finally see the light of day. Each version contains the same parts, but the novel’s various sections—ten chapters, housing twenty paragraphs each (of a possible thirty)— appear in a random order predetermined by a computer algorithm, making each copy unique. The English-language copies from Verso’s print run of 4,000 are individually numbered, starting from 10,000, continuing sequentially from where the Italian and German editions left off. Mine is number 10,789. Though the words in it are the same as those in other copies, the book in my hands is entirely different.

But is the story still the same?

Herein lies the beautiful problem. In a manner of speaking, yes. A playful homage to the classic story of Tristan and Iseult—that oft-told, many-versioned tale of the Middle Ages wherein a knight and a maiden with magical healing powers drink a potion that turns things passionate, then deadly—Tristano is not plot-driven, though the recognizable elements of a love story do surface here and there: hair is stroked, clothes are shed, stairs are climbed. Balestrini, a founding member of the Italian avant-garde literary movement Gruppo 63, whose work has often rejected the narrative tradition, here plays the role of author-builder: if the paragraph is his building block, the sum of them puzzled together constitutes the greater form.

Within each paragraph we see strands of narrative, interconnected with strands in other paragraphs. Each tells a fragment of a tale, often involving a character named C, who (in a delightfully infuriating twist that presages the inconsistency of the story itself) is sometimes male, sometimes female. But the reader must not grow too fond; the next paragraph could relate events taking place one day after or three weeks before. This unpredictability enhances our perception of passing time, even as it strips chronology entirely away. In the love-story canon, it is only after he leans in to kiss her that he can smell her perfume. Not so here.

There is, for instance, a teasing quality to the early appearance of this line: “One of the wardrobe doors was open and C noticed that there were fewer women’s clothes hanging there than the other time.” The phrase “the other time” is tantalizing, a chronological marker thrown in without any antecedent. In a later paragraph within the same chapter, we read: “Near the end of October he found sleep again, but at the price of terrible dreams.” Again, the phrase “Near the end of October” bothers us: We feel we must use this piece of information—these cues are signs on the narrative trail. But would it matter if these lines were reversed (as is surely the case in a different copy of the book)—with C finding sleep again and dreaming terrible dreams before he sees the open wardrobe with fewer women’s clothes hanging there than the other time? What then?

In forcing a non-hierarchical, non-chronological reading of a love story, Balestrini would seem to be gently mocking the carnal, whimsical narratives of courtship we carry with us, chiding them as tender and foolish, as marked by our petty need to pin meaningful developments to passing time. And then she said, I don’t want to see anybody else. Have we not all, upon hearing such words, silently rejoiced in a threshold crossed and a curtain raised on romance’s second act?

The use of algorithms in writing is, of course, a long-standing tradition, one that includes the work of the Oulipo, whose members wrote poems and novels guided by experimental constraints. The literary product of such a process, whether in the 1960s or today, always runs the risk of being denounced as unreadable, or a perversion of some purer form. But these criticisms miss out on the playfulness that tends to undergird such constraints.

Take Balestrini’s coy communications with the reader. Like an architect who builds some personal touch, some subtle flourish or telling detail into the walls of his building, Balestrini slyly inserts his thoughts on the limits of standard narrative throughout the novel: “It was often difficult for her to understand if they were moving normally. They can follow a spatial trajectory while usually only temporal trajectories can be followed.”

With such gentle gibing, the reader may very well be tempted to skip around and play God, as it were. If each paragraph could just as easily have appeared on a different page, why read in such a plain, rote, sequential way? And yet, the reader would do well to resist this impulse, because another interesting possibility of the book is that it puts the weight of authority on the reading of the text, rather than on its writing. The reader might hold, if she so chose, as much authority as Balestrini himself. The book she reads is not just one version of many possible versions. It can be the authoritative version of Tristano, if she, now a co-author of sorts, has the nerve to dub it such. Balestrini, surely, would not mind. In fact, he would be delighted.

Ironically, though Balestrini is a self-proclaimed foe of “the stiff determinism of Gutenberg mechanical typography,” the technological scaffolding behind Tristano might find its impetus in, or at least echo, the sublime flaws of just such a printing process. After all, though impressions left by the bite of metal type on paper were indelible, slight differences in the height of worn type or the pressure of the human hand could create rather unique versions of the same composition. So, we might paradoxically catch a glimpse of sympathy for the technologies of yore in a project predicated on, or at least fulfilled by, the technologies of the twenty-first century—minute flaws spurring on an extreme form of narrative innovation.

As Umberto Eco writes in his introduction, Balestrini “does not aim to celebrate fortuity so much as the possibility of an elevated number of possible outcomes.” There is in this parsing a desire to both fête and poke fun at the obsessive human need for singularity. Perhaps because of this need, we lose out on a different kind of story altogether that would continue undaunted, before and after us, if we let it build of its own accord, in whatever order it wished.

Jane Yong Kim is an editor at Al Jazeera.

Experimental writing