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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Italo Calvino’s
“The Man Who Shouted Teresa”

Read it at Biblioklept.

Head Shouting by Julio Gonzalez
Head Shouting by Julio Gonzalez

Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was an Italian writer and journalist and was part of the Oulipo, neorealism, and postmodern movements. One of his novels, Invisible Cities, was composed of a series of short-short dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan about mostly imaginary cities. Each segment of the surreal and mostly uncategorical novel is a short-short piece of literature. His other writing is unique as well.

In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino wrote:

“My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language… I have come to consider lightness a value rather than a defect.”

Calvino’s working method applies well to his short-short story, “The Man Who Shouted Teresa.” The story is a plain and simple one with very little weight. The characters have no names, there is minimal setting, description, dialogue, and action. While it’s a light story, it’s certainly not a trite one. It suggests much more than its surface details reveal.

The story is about a man who shouts out “Teresa” to the buildings of the city. He made a megaphone of his hands to help the sound carry. The story begins with “I,” but soon after another man joins him and states that two people calling the name will be better. Now the small group of two becomes a “We.” The two men also form the first rule of the group—the name must be shouted on the count of three.

Then a group of people passing by decide to lend their help too. They worked hard trying to call out the name in unison. After about a quarter of an hour, almost twenty people added their voices to the call to Teresa. The group tried organizing itself to give a good shout at the same time. Occasionally a squabble would break out when someone was off.

Just as they were beginning to get the call into good form, someone who sounded “as if he had freckles” asked the man who began the shout if he was sure Teresa was home. The man answered “no.” Another participant asked if the man had forgotten his key. He answered “no” again. They asked why he didn’t go up and he then admitted he didn’t live there. He tells them he lived on the other side of town.

The man with the freckle voice asked who lives there? The shouting man admitted he had no idea who actually lives there. This admission perturbed some of the participants. The freckled one asked if the man was playing a trick on them. Then someone, whose voice sounded “toothy,” asked why he was calling out “Teresa.” The man said they could call out a different name or go to a different location if they’d like.

Someone with a “good nature” suggested they call Teresa one more time, then go home. So they did it once more on the count of three. But the call didn’t come out very well. The little crowd finally dispersed, going off in different directions. As he walked away, the man who began the name-shouting event thought he heard a voice still calling to Teresa. He claims this remaining person is stubborn.

The situation itself is humorous—all these people calling out to this unknown person named Teresa. These strangers take their task seriously and work hard calling the name in unison. Calvino also adds humor in his out-of-the-ordinary descriptions. He says one man sounds as if he has freckles. What might that person sound like? That is fun to imagine. Another man is described as having a voice that sounds “toothy,” and that too is fun to imagine. These are unusual and humorous ways to describe strangers in the dark street.

It’s quite amusing that all this work took place among all these people, and there is no actual Teresa. The small crowd believed there was a Teresa and acted according to their belief. From this, a community was born. While the story is comical on the surface, it suggests much more than the surface details reveal.

The story, on a deeper level, urges the careful reader to give thought to how we come to believe what we believe—to think about how often and in what ways we might act on our unfounded beliefs. This tiny story shows us how a community formed, based on a belief system the community members shared. The story illustrates how such groups form rules of standards, and how such communities disassemble when the belief system no longer holds.

The shouting man didn’t deceive anyone. He merely called out a name. Based on his actions, others decided to believe the man was calling out to an actual person and chose to join in. When the truth was realized, that there was no Teresa, a man described as “good-natured” suggested that they call out one more time, then leave the scene. He likely sensed the potential for anger over the undermining of the crowd’s belief.

This is a tiny story without much weight to it, illustrating Calvino’s preference for lightness. Yet it turns out to be loaded with meaning. Calvino, with his working method of weight subtraction, proves his genius in keeping the larger, more important part of his delightful and meaningful story below the humorous surface details.


About the writer:
PAMELYN CASTO, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide To Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books And Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in the Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

About Italo Calvino: Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was an Italian writer and journalist.

Image: Head Shouting by Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942). Oil on canvas. No size specified. Between 1936 & 1939. Public domain.

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