Study Guide

If on a winter's night a traveler Chapter 2

By Italo Calvino

Chapter 2

  • If on a winter's night a traveler
  • Hey now, it looks like some sort of story is about to get underway. But the narrator (or whoever's speaking) still seems to be insistently present in the action, saying, "The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs" (2.1).
  • Okay, so present tense, eh? Not a classic novel style, but fine.
  • You read that a cloud of steam from a train covers the opening of the chapter, as though the images are somehow coming out of the book and blocking the words you're reading. The book seems to be getting confused about what's real "inside" its pages and "outside" of them.
  • Eventually, you realize that you are reading about some unnamed man who is entering the railway station and smelling the odor of the cafĂ©.
  • People look to him suspiciously; the cat by the cashier arches its back. The book tells us that based on this evidence, we can tell he is in a rural station, where strangers stick out like sore thumbs.
  • Watch out, the novel suddenly tells you, because you are about to get absorbed in the reading. Every time you start to settle into the story, the narrator seems to insist on reminding you that you're reading a book. Way to harsh our mellow, narrator.
  • At this point, the man in the story claims that "something must have gone wrong" for him, a statement that deliberately plays with your expectation for an interesting plot. You also find out that he's carrying a suitcase, and you might begin to wonder what's in it. The man thinks that he might be supposed to swap suitcases with someone else in the station.
  • Finding no one he knows, the man wonders if he should go into the city, which doesn't really exist yet because it hasn't been named and we don't know if it'll show up in the story at all.
  • Some higher power seems to be giving the man his orders. He's been told not to leave any traces of his presence at the train station, so he naturally becomes more nervous the longer he's there.
  • As if he is only remembering now, the man informs us that someone was supposed to meet him when he got off his train. (PLOT! Hooray!).
  • The narrator knows that he was supposed to mutter a password of some kind to this other person and then hand him/her the suitcase.
  • There's a problem though: the last trains of the evening have already come and gone, and there's no sign of this other person. Not knowing what to do, the man glances toward the station bar and envies the patrons for their simple, familiar lives.
  • Before we know it, the guy's taken a seat next to the only woman in the bar and has struck up a conversation with her. He suggests to her that she can probably predict everything that's about to happen in her town, but she denies this.
  • We find out that the people in the bar pass the time by making bets about which barfly is going to walk into the station next. (Our money's on Norm.) They've also bet on who is going to talk to Madame Marne, the woman who the narrator is talking to.
  • At this point, the narrator butts back into the action and tells you that your attention is focused completely on the woman. C'mon dear reader! Are you so easily manipulated? Muahaha.
  • Back to the story, then: the woman tells the man that she has closed her shop for the night, and he says he wishes he could have been there to help her do it. You're not really sure if this is a romantic advance.
  • Dun dun dun! The woman's ex-husband walks into the bar. But hey, he doesn't seem all that concerned that Madame Marne is talking to the main character. There's still a little tension, though.
  • The man tells the woman that he often wonders about all the other lives he could have led. He could have been with this woman when they were younger. The woman smiles at this, deciding to take it as a compliment.
  • She gets up to leave. The man tells her he will come by later and rap on her store's shutter, asking if she will hear him. She tells him to go ahead and try.
  • The woman's ex-husband approaches the bar, possibly to get a look at the main character's face.
  • Suddenly, the Chief of Police enters the bar, walks directly to the man, and mutters the password the narrator had been expecting.
  • After this, the Chief wanders over to the cigarette machine.
  • The man wonders if someone's given him up to the police, though he doesn't know if what he's doing is even illegal, since he doesn't seem to know what's inside his suitcase. This is so Pulp Fiction it's killing us.
  • After a brief pause, the man follows the Chief of Police to the cigarette machine.
  • The Chief suddenly says, "They've killed Jan," suggesting that someone important has died. He instructs the main character that there is no use for his suitcase anymore, and that he should get rid of it. The express train, which isn't supposed to come to this station, will stop at track six in exactly three minutes, and the narrator has that amount of time to get there.
  • When he hesitates, the Chief tells him to move quickly or he'll be arrested.
  • The narrator says that "the organization" he works for is so powerful it can control the police and the railroads. Now things are getting very, very interesting…