During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from author Scott Garson.
Italo Calvino’s “Theft in a Pastry Shop” has the illustrious distinction of being the story I’ve most often read aloud to people on road trips.
Probably that’s not incidental. Calvino’s narration—an all-knowing 3rd—makes it easy for listeners to orient themselves. And the story’s not hard to find your way around in the first place. It’s whole and direct, like a melody, and gives pleasures, I think, much the same.
So what is there to say about it? What’s there to say about an infectious tune, beyond stressing your enthusiasm?
I’ll start with some bibliographical stuff. The version I have—translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright—is from the 1984 HBJ collection DIFFICULT LOVES. According to a brief foreword, the story was written sometime in the mid-to-late 1940’s and first published in book form in 1949, in ULTIMO VIENE IL CORVO.
That would put it in the heyday of Neorealism, and you can definitely see the signs. The leader of the gang, Dritto, “[walks] along in silence, through streets empty as dry rivers, with the moon following them along the tramlines.” The lookout man, Uora-Uora, has to stand out in the cold, hungry. He’s dressed “in his best, God knows why, complete with hat, tie and raincoat,” but with his long wrists “jutting out of his sleeves.”
If there’s the stark, social poetry of Neorealism in “Theft,” however, there’s also something more immediate and more easily identified: genre. Like the title says, this is crime fiction, and we run into certain conventions right away. We learn that the men are accustomed to the life: they’re out with “two jobs to do.” We observe in their group rigid hierarchy: Dritto, the leader, is imperious and grim; the two underlings, Uora-Uora and Baby, ask questions we might end up taking as dumb—because Dritto sees no need to answer.
Have I given you enough for you to imagine you’ve pegged this story by now?
“It was then that he became aware of the smell; he took a deep breath and up through his nostrils wafted an aroma of freshly baked cakes. It gave him a feeling of shy excitement, of remote tenderness, rather than of actual greed.
Oh, what a lot of cakes there must be in here, he thought. It was years since he had eaten a proper piece of cake, not since before the war perhaps. He decided to search around until he found them. He jumped down into the darkness, kicked against a telephone, got a broomstick up his trouser leg, and then hit the ground.
At this in point in the story—two pages in—things take a definite turn. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the story goes more Chaplin’s way than De Sica’s. And if you were thinking that the men would either get the desired lire or become subjects of a meditation on iniquity—no. The crime-fiction scaffold goes sailing. We get something wild. Psychological. Metaphysical. Both. Or neither. Vital, anyway.
Calvino’s “Theft in a Pastry Shop” is a story of happenstance liberty, fleeting deliverance in a garden of instinct. If you’re like me, you will pretty much never forget the last line, which involves Baby and Tuscan Mary. If you’re like me, this story will keep calling your name. It will seem the kind of story you can always use.
Scott Garson’s collection of stories–Is That You, John Wayne?–is just out from Queen’s Ferry Press.