Rise of the machines

Brendan Byrne on Nanni Balestrini’s 1966 experimental novel Tristano.

When composing Tristano, Balestrini used a computer algorithm to shuffle the sentences of the ten paragraphs which comprise each of the ten chapters. The exact methodology is not clear, but it was likely similar to the process he used for an earlier computer-manipulated text, Tape Mark 1 (1961). For that work, snippets of Lao Tzu, Michihito Hachiya, and Paul Goldwin were divided into fifteen short phrases and then remixed combinatorially by an IBM 7070 and a program comprising 322 punched cards to create short texts, each a unique sequence of ten elements.

In the case of Tristano, his process allowed for 109,027,350,432,000 different possible variations. A single variation of Tristano was published in Italian in 1966, its text “a mixture of original prose and text borrowed from guidebooks, atlases, newspapers and other artistically marginal sources,” according to the publisher. For the text to make any sense at all post-scramble, it had to be, as Balestrini’s neoavanguardia comrade Umberto Eco writes in his forward, “‘prepared,’ like pieces of lego, each already designed to fit together with other pieces in multiple ways.” As a result, there are a limited number of set-pieces, and all proper names are “C,” leading to such delirious formulations as, “In the month of July C went on a trip up the river on the ship as far as C and on his return he decided to abandon C.” This sentence also serves as a neat summing up, as near as I can tell, of Tristano‘s “plot,” which is ostensibly based on the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isode.