Notes on Italo Calvino’s Time and the Hunter 3

Italo Calvino, Time and the Hunter In my last post, I quoted a passage that reminded me of imageability. The last chapter in the book, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” goes farther in that regard, and it is my favorite chapter in the book.

I can’t tell how it relates to Alexandre Dumas’s book I haven’t read it, and I don’t want to give away its ending, but the story has two of Dumas’s characters: Edmond Dantès and Abbé Faria. Both are trying to break out of the prison they are in. Faria’s method is trial and error; he is constantly digging – and Dantès observes him, trying to create a mental picture of the prison from Faria’s errors.

From page 144:

The images of the fortress that Faria and I create are becoming more and more different: Faria, beginning with a simple figure, is complicating it extremely to include in it each of the single unforeseen elements he encounters in his path; I, setting out from the jumble of these data, see in each isolated obstacle the clue to a system of obstacles, I develop each segment into a regular figure, I fit these figures together as the sides of a solid, polyhedron or hyperpolyhedron, I inscribe these polyhedrons in spheres or hyperspheres, and so the more I enclose the form of the fortress the more I simplify it, defining it in a numerical relation or in an algebraic formula.

I also thought about software development. About how important it is to maintain a mental picture of the body of code one is working with. It is essential that you make sure it is consistent on the global scale, that it does not – digress; that it grows in a way that is faithful to its current form; that it doesn’t gradually shapeshift, unawares, into something else.

Jørn Utzon's 'additive architecture'

The picture above is from the Jørn Utzon exhibition at Louisiana1. Utzon practiced something he called “additive architecture.” I haven’t read much about it yet, but so far I have understood it as being about simple forms that can be combined, allowing for controlled growth. More on this later as I have had time to read the exhibition book.

However, code doesn’t simply grow by additions of modules, despite the fact that concepts like “modularity” and “components” are common in software development. Rather, some modules swell, and make new relationships to other modules. Sometimes new modules appear, small at first, then growing bigger. Sometimes modules are split into two or more. In this regard, code isn’t comparable to buildings and cities.

From page 145:

[...] each cell seems separated from the outside only by the thickness of a wall, but Faria as he excavates discovers that in between there is always another cell, and between this cell and the outside, still another. The image I derive is this: a fortress that grows around us, and the longer we remain shut up in it the more it removes us from the outside. The Abbé digs, digs, but the walls increase in thickness, the battlements and the buttresses are multiplied. Perhaps if he can succeed in advancing faster than the fortress expands, Faria at a certain point will find himself outside unawares. It would be necessary to invert the relative speeds so that the fortress, contracting, would expel the Abbé like a cannonball.

In a recent project I was in, the shape and structure of the code was tough to make out. It was often described as being of such and such a shape, but the layers just weren’t there. I had a difficult time making extensions to the system, as I felt uncomfortable adding code in places where the existing code had little in common. Code that did X could be found in several places, so which one was right? And the code grew each day, so in a sense I was digging around like Abbé, while at the same time trying to get to grips with how the system should be organized if things were ideal, like Dantès.

From page 144, again:

I set out from the opposite premise: there exists a perfect fortress, from which one cannot escape; escape is possible only if in the planning or building of the fortress some error or oversight was made. While Faria continues taking the fortress apart, sounding out its weak points, I continue putting it back together, conjecturing more and more insuperable barriers.

Afterword: Googling around, I found an article by Gore Vidal, where he writes that this story, “Calvino’s version of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is indeed the finest achievement of Jorge Luis Borges as imagined by Italo Calvino.” See also my first two posts on this book.

1 For more on Jørn Utzon, see my post “Software Development, Plainly: Innovation.”

The above was posted to my personal weblog on July 29, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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