It was a rainy autumn afternoon. A librarian found a chapbook among a pile of donated books once belonging to an old man. The chapbook contained nothing but poems from a poet who had been dead for twenty years. Those poems touched something deep inside the librarian although he had never heard of the poet and there was no photograph of the poet in the chapbook, either.
Such is the beginning of Xia Jia’s enchanting short story “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.” With powerful narratives, the author creates an enticing atmosphere, immersing the reader in an experience probably appreciated by all book lovers. For instance, in the opening scene, you could almost see in your mind’s eyes that a lone librarian working amid piles of books, cataloguing the newly acquired ones, as gentle as a loving parent caring for his children. So, when the mysterious borrower who apparently had some connection to the poem book appeared on a snowy day, moving like a ghost among the bookshelves, you would want to know more, about the poet, about the borrower.
According to Xia Jia, this story was originally part of another story published in Science Fiction World magazine in China, but cut out due to its length. The other story, titled “The Water of River Lethe”, mimics a series of posts by the users of an Internet forum, discussing the issues regarding an APP called iMemorial which collects visual materials—videos and photos–of a person when he/she is alive and produces a commemorative presentation based on those materials when the person passes away. In the age of information, it seems easier to gather the visual data than destroying it.
Some people wish to be remembered by their visual images, but some only want to leave behind their life’s work, such as the poet in “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.” The poet has some counterparts in the real world as well. For example, the renowned Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is one among those holding the opinion that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” She has never appeared at any public events, revealed no personal identity to magazines or newspapers, and shared no photos with her readers. When someone asked, “May we know who you are?” Her answer was, “I’ve published six books in twenty years. Isn’t that sufficient?” Obviously, the correct response to that is to respect the wishes of those who choose to be unostentatious.
But enough of this analysis of perspectives. The beauty of the story lies in the emotional link between the readers of the poems. The librarian was a lone wolf, uncomfortable with the world outside and taking the library as a kind of sanctuary. One day, he encountered the poems in the slim chapbook and found it in them the greatest joy of reading. Then, the borrower arrived, along with the hope that there might be more people like him, more readers of the anonymous poet. It was like a window opening to a new world where he could understand the other dwellers, and possibly, be understood in return. It is not a coincident that the title of this short fiction is the same as that of the famous novel by Italo Calvino. The story is in the form of a post on an Internet forum, uploaded by someone whose nickname was ‘traveller on a winter’s night,’ suggesting that reading was what he loved. Like Calvino’s novel, the theme of readers attracted to the same author is also an important lead here. Eventually, it takes the story to a vivid and powerful ending, one that makes you feel a welcoming warmth even though it happened on a freezing winter night.
[The English version of “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” was translated by Ken Liu, published on Clarkesworld Issue 110, November 2015.]