Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: The burning of the abominable house

      Italo Calvino originally wrote "The Burning of the Abominable House" for Playboy in 1973 which I guess is a testament to the quality of writing that Hef used to support. It runs fairly long for Calvino pulling in at about 14 pages but skips along the whole time at the excited fevered pace he sometimes employs. It follows a man (who is not named until the last third of the story) and his job processing an insurance report for a Mr. Skiller who becomes increasingly important as the story continues. The unnamed character is at the helm of a powerful computer attempting to determine the causes of death of 4 strange characters: Inigo the introverted  aristocratic playboy, old Ms. Roessler the head of the household, Ogiva a beautiful but conflicted young woman and Belindo the giant Uzbek wrestler. These four all lived together in a house and were found dead in the embers after it burned down. The only clues to the causes of their deaths are a book that lists 12 abominable deeds that the 4 may have perpetrated on one another including rape, strangling, seduction drugging in any number of combination. Each character had insurance plans, in some cases multiple, so huge amounts of money stand to be moved. The outcome of the deaths will influence the payouts of the insurance and so the operator has a huge amount of power in his hands. The computer operator indicates that of possible combination of crimes (12 (perpetrator-victim relationships) to the power of 12 (potential crimes)) he must find the one true course of events. He then goes through a portion of the logical combination and begins entering them into his computer. Calvino sets this up as a gigantic logic problem and analyzes the characters and their relationships as he tries to determine the most realistic set of circumstances surrounding the deaths. This results in the operator mentally recreating the possible crimes which are at once fascinating and hilarious.
         It begins to dawn on the character (now known as Waldemar) that Skiller (and maybe even others) may be involved in the situation in addition to the 4 characters. Waldemar begins to see a hidden plan behind Skiller's motives. It is here that the story really kicks into gear. Calvino paints Waldemar and Skiller as rivals in a high stakes game involving their massive computers over the fates of the insurance payouts. A tangible sense of paranoia begins to settle over the story and Waldemar's work takes on a new urgency. Calvino brings up the intersting point that computers can only calculate the variables that the operator inputs and is aware of.
          The pacing of the story is perfect and each time Calvino unfolds one of the many layers of the story we are surprised and enlightened anew. Since Waldemar must understand the relationships between the 4 characters from the little information he has about them as new information comes in we see these characters totally shift: here they are all villains out to murder and rape each other, later innocent victims turned against each other by a manipulative mastermind. Calvino achieves a strange victory with The burning: he manages to make a story about math, computers, and one man's obsession with finding a needle of truth in a haystack of information entertaining and engaging. It is even a little prophetic: written in 1973 Calvino imagines a battle between two minds behind computers years before hackers or even Gibson and cyberpunk.

Found in Numbers in the Dark

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