“Italo Calvino’s ‘Quickness’ and the Cactus On My Desk” by Aaron Tang12 min read

25 January, 2017 0 comment


Illustration by Tara Galuska

This all started because of a little nod a barista gave me. I bet she never thought that her little nod would end up being in an essay. Before I encountered the nod, I was reading the following passage in Quickness:

…Scheherazade tells a story in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story, and so forth. The art that enables Scheherazade to save her life every night consists of knowing how to join one story to another, breaking off at just the right moment – two ways of manipulating the continuity and discontinuity of time. It is a secret of rhythm, a way of capturing time that we can recognize from the very beginning: in the epic by means of the metrical effects of the verse, in prose narrative by those effects that make us eager to know what comes next.

(Calvino, 37)

The idea of breaking at the right moment to manipulate the continuity and discontinuity of time intrigued me.  Even more intriguing to me was the idea that the continuity and discontinuity of time might be manipulated not only to join separate stories, but to intertwine them.

While I was reading Italo Calvino’s Quickness from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a cactus on my desk caught my attention. I looked up where the name ‘cactus’ came from, and I searched stories about cacti, but I found nothing too interesting. So I went for a walk.

I live in downtown Toronto, in a building called 21 Iceboat Terrace – an odd name. Iceboat Terrace is also the name of the street on which my building is located. Most taxi drivers have no idea where this street is. It’s a short street that’s between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst. It’s located between Front Street and Fort York Boulevard, right next to the Go Train train tracks. There are two buildings named Iceboat Terrace – 15 Iceboat Terrace and 21 Iceboat Terrace. The two buildings are right next to each other, and connecting the two Iceboat Terraces on the 35th floor, is a bridge. Though in, some senses, that bridge is not a bridge. It serves not the purpose of a bridge, but that of something else. I haven’t been up there myself, but I have heard that that bridge consists of party rooms and other facilities which residences of the Iceboat Terraces can rent. Since the bridge is on the 35th floor and it faces both Billy Bishop Airport and the Toronto Islands, I imagine that the view from up there is quite nice. I have never gone up to that bridge because I have never needed to. And I believe that not a lot of other people use that bridge as a bridge, either, since not many people would need to walk from the 35th floor of one residential building to another.

I left my building and walked across an actual bridge above the Go Train train tracks to go get a coffee. The coffee shop was filled with people reading and chatting, but the line wasn’t too long. It was the end of November, the coffee shop was warm, and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song was playing. When it was my turn to order, I approached the barista with the hint of a smile. The barista, a young woman, didn’t say a word to me. Instead, she gave me a little expressionless chin-up nod, as if saying, “Quit that smile and order your drink!” – so I did. I paid for my coffee and, without tipping, left the shop to walk back to Iceboat Terrace. And then, perhaps because of that particular nod of hers, I realized why the cactus had caught my attention.

Illustration by Tara Galuska

Illustration by Tara Galuska

My parents are Cantonese. I was born in Vancouver, but I moved to Hong Kong when I was five, and lived there until I was fifteen – before moving to Ontario. Therefore, I speak Chinese. What linked the cactus on my desk and Calvino’s essay was how you say cactus in Chinese. In Chinese, there is no such word as cactus, because in Chinese, cactus is written as 仙人掌 (Xian Ren Zhang), which, if directly translated word by word, means the palm of a Xian. A Xian, in the Taoist religion, is a spiritually immortal transcendent super-human. Xian Rens are usually depicted as happy elderly men or women who stand on clouds (kind of like old fairies). I always knew that cactus in Chinese was Xian Ren Zhang, but had never really thought about it. I guess when I was in Hong Kong and speaking Chinese all the time, I didn’t realize how strange some of the words and phrases actually were – I mean, who would think of relating a cactus to the palm of a transcendent super-human? After some research, I found out the story behind the name, which I proceeded to translate:

There was once mountain called the mountain of the great beast. Many who visited the mountain were eaten by a huge tiger. Near the mountain, lived a loving mother and her son – Ting. Ting’s father had been eaten by the tiger. Ting had tried many times to go up the mountain to take revenge, but his mother would not stop crying whenever he tried to leave for the mountain.

One day, Ting heard that the tiger had eaten another villager, and Ting was furious. Without telling his mother, he left for the mountain. During the height of the battle, there suddenly came a laughter from the skies. A Xian descended from the skies, and a with a swing of his fan, the old man created a tornado that blew the tiger away. Ting thanked him. “Since you are so brave,” the Xian said, “you can take credit for killing of the Tiger. Go to the governor and tell him that you have killed the huge tiger in the mountains, and he will reward you with silver and gold.” “No!” said Ting, “I did not come here so that I could be rewarded with gold.” The Xian, again pleased with Ting’s response, said “Very well, I will offer you this little plant that can cure all illnesses.”

I will get back to the rest of the story about the Xian’s palm later, because there was something about that nod that made me a little uncomfortable as I sipped my coffee and walked away from the coffee shop. Was that rude of her? I thought to myself. Not necessarily. Is she always like that? Or did the previous customer upset her, and she was taking it out on me? When I was putting a lid on my coffee, I turned around and noticed that she greeted the person behind me with a “Hi!” – I heard it with my own ears. Was she a racist? That couldn’t be it. From what I could tell, she was also of an Asian descent. Wait, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she can’t be a racist…Why she gave me that nod, I will never know. I couldn’t possibly have gone back to ask her, “Why the chin-up nod instead of a simple ‘Hi! What can I get you?’” – because that would have been ridiculous. Plus, she might have already forgotten the whole thing. There was a certain quickness to that nodding gesture that rushed me into ordering my coffee without giving the gesture much thought.

I looked up at the sky. Night was approaching, and I realized that most of my day had been spent thinking about a bridge and a cactus, while I was supposed to have been writing this paper. When you’re in grad school, you feel like a lot of your days off – days that were meant to be spent on your work – end up being wasted, as you get distracted thinking about useless things. Or maybe that’s just me. I mimicked the barista’s chin-up nod, to see how it felt. The street was empty so it didn’t matter how odd I looked while doing it. As I was doing the chin-up nod to myself, I noticed that the non-bridge between the Iceboat Terraces had turned blue. As the sky faded into darkness, a blue rectangle connected my building to the one next to it.

Now, back to Xian’s Palm:

Ting used the plant’s leaves to heal villagers with serious illnesses. For every leaf Ting used, another one grew back immediately. Eventually, the news that a young man possessed a magical plant from a Xian made its way to the emperor. The emperor then ordered his men to find that man and bring him the plant. If the man was to refuse, the emperor’s men were to chop the man’s head off. Ting refused, and told the emperor’s men to chop his head off. When the tension was at its highest, the Xian appeared again. The Xian whispered into Ting’s ear, “Listen, this is a chance for you to kill the corrupted emperor. However, if you go to the palace with the plant, you can never return to the villa. Are you brave enough to go?” Ting went.

As soon as the emperor had laid his hand upon the plant, stinging needles grew out from it, and stabbed right through the emperor’s hand. The emperor was enraged. With his other hand, he pulled his sword and struck the plant. The part he chopped off grew back immediately. Seeing the plant’s immediate recovery, the emperor was happy. He believed that if he made the plant into soup and drank it, he would live forever. The emperor drank the soup and died immediately. His men chopped Ting’s head off. People in the villa then stole the plant back from the palace, and planted it in Ting’s garden. Because the plant was from a Xian and was the size of a palm, the people named it Xian’s Palm (仙人掌).

At this point, I think it’s important for me to mention what I’d been reading before I went out for that walk. Before reading this Calvino essay, I had read If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler and a little bit of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino – both of which I enjoyed very much. One part of Quickness that had particularly struck me was when Calvino discussed the relativity of time in one of his stories. Most people know that Calvino was a writer, a journalist, an essayist, a lecturer, and an intellectual – but few know that he was also interested in physics, and studied the discipline for some time. In fact, the time-space continuum was a main concern of his when he wrote If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Knowing about Calvino’s interest in the time-space continuum makes what he says about time in Quickness all the more interesting. He writes:

In practical life, time is a form of wealth… In literature, time is a form of wealth to be spent at leisure and with detachment. We do not have to be first past a predetermined finish line. On the contrary, saving time is a good thing because the more time we save, the more we can afford to lose.

(Calvino, 46)

This is the point where I will directly relate the cactus (or Xian Ren Zhang) on my desk to the essay: Unlike the little fairy tales told in Quickness, that translation of the Xian’s palm was rather long. I wondered if the tale would be more powerful, or evocative, if I had taken Calvino’s advice and tried writing it with a kind of quickness. So, I gave myself the constraint. I decided to rewrite the cactus tale in exactly two-hundred words.

A boy’s father was killed by a tiger on a mountain. He grew up to be a strong man, but his protective mother never let him avenge his father. One day, he heard that the same tiger had killed his neighbour. Furious, he went to seek revenge. While he was caught in a battle with the tiger, a Xian appeared. The Xian blew the tiger away and gave the young man a plant that cured all diseases. The savage emperor heard about the plant, and ordered his men bring it to him. The Xian appeared to the young man again, telling him that this was a chance to kill the emperor. The young man went to the palace with the plant. The emperor touched the plant, and spikes grew from it and stabbed his hand. Thinking that this was a magical plant that could make him immortal, he decided to make it into soup and drink it. The emperor died, and his men killed the young man. Villagers took the plant back and planted it. Because it was a plant from a Xian and was the seize of a palm, they named it Xian’s Palm (仙人掌).

I walked back to my apartment. Staring at the blue rectangular non-bridge, I walked across the actual bridge above the Go Train train tracks. I’ve heard that they are going to take away the train tracks soon and turn this area into a park. I wondered if I’d still be living here when that happened. I’m just twenty-two, maybe I’ll have moved somewhere else by then. Maybe I’ll be married, and will be living in a house back in Vancouver. Thinking about the future gave me a strange sensation – a sensation that was strange but also similar to the way I’d felt when the barista had given me that chin-up nod – both sensations had a quickness to them, pushing me to think about moving forward in time. Maybe it is time to look into real estate prices and mortgage loans. No, I have an essay to finish.  I went back to my desk, where my laptop, Calvino essay, a copy of If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and my Xian’s Palm were all waiting for me. I sat down at my desk, stared at all the things on my desk, and decided to go back to the coffee shop. For some reason, I felt like it would be more appropriate to write this essay there. And when I’m done, maybe I will pay that blue rectangle a little visit.  



Illustration by Tara Galuska

Aaron Tang is a Cantonese Canadian born in Vancouver. At the age of five, he moved to Hong Kong to attend school for nine years before returning to Canada to attend High School and University. He graduated from Queen’s University in the summer of 2016 with a Bachelor Degree in Film. Now, he is living in downtown Toronto and am enrolled in a Master’s of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at The University of Guelph. His main focus is on playwriting and fiction. 

Works Cited:

Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the next Millennium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.

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