syntactic arrangement

The burning of the abominable house

The burning of the abominable house (Italian title: L'incendio della casa abominevole) is a short story by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino. It can be considered an experiment of computer aided literature, where the techniques of combinatorics and constrain based writing developed by the French writers' gathering Oulipo are applied to the narrative structure rather than just to the syntactic arrangement of a text.


Oulipo member and ALAMO (Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et les Ordinateurs) Founder Paul Braffort, writes that a prime version of the story was initially published on the Italian edition of the Playboy magazine, to become later the project for a never-finished novel: L’ordre dans le crime (italian title:L’ordine del delitto). Braffort was asked by Calvino to write an editing and filtering program. This collaboration resulted in a presentation made on the 15 June 1977 at the "Atelier de Recherches Avancées" of National Center for Art and Culture.

Story Plot

A computer analyst and programmer is hired by an insurance company to reconstitute antecedents and circumstances of a mysterious boarding house blaze. In the blaze die all the house inhabitants: a Widow Roessler (house owner), her adoptive daughter Ogiva, the young Inigo and the Uzbek wrestler Belindo Kind. While the police dismisses soon the investigation since all the persons involved are dead in the burning, the assurance company is determined to investigate on the house blase circumstances because it has stipulated a life insurance with all its dwellers. The only available clue is the cover page of a notebook found in the house's ruins. One of the house dwellers wrote in facts an account of "horrible acts" perpetrated in the house and most likely resulting in the house blaze itself. Only the cover page of this notebook has survived the flames: on its back side its written a table of content, indexing twelve headings:

  • to Bind and Gag
  • to Blackmail
  • to Drug
  • to Prostitute
  • to Push to suicide
  • to Rape
  • to Seduce
  • to Slander
  • to Spy up on
  • to Stab
  • to Strangle
  • to Threaten with a Revolver

To solve the enigma, the computer programmer approaches it in formal terms: each of the four characters, can be at the same time the object and the subject of the 12 possible acts mentioned in the notebook's index. Taken two per time, these can configure 12 different transitive, non- reflexive relations each, thus resulting in a total of 12 power 12 (874.296.672.256) possible relations. In order to narrow down the number of possible hypothesis, the programmer needs to define a system of filters and selection rules that can allow the computer to automatically exclude those hypotheses that seem to be physically or logically impossible.


  • Calvino, Italo Prima che tu dica "pronto", Arnoldo Mondadori Editore 1995, ISBN:8804409347.

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