A first appearance in English by the late Italian writer Manganelli, this collection of short stories is more an exercise in philosophy than storytelling. For Manganelli, a winner of many prestigious awards, fiction is a convention for his larger metaphysical quests. Each of the seven stories is an exploration of the voyage we embark upon at birth. When an about-to-he-born child bids farewell to the life he has lead in the womb (""Leave-taking""), birth is seen as an ending of life for it begins the journey toward death--but the child will not be exempted, as it wishes, ""from its task of existing."" In ""Lovers,"" a man and a woman, in separate soliloquies, explore the ties that bind them. ""Travel Notes"" and ""The Betrothal,"" both superficially more conventional, are accounts of men who venture out on journeys, which begin unexceptionally: a hiker in the mountains seeks shelter for a night, and abridegroom takes a walk around the town before the wedding. But both end in a surreal world, where time and the usual roles play no part. The narrator of ""The Self-awareness of the Labyrinth"" ponders on the identity of the labyrinth in which he Finds himself: it is both life in the abstract and his own creation. Perhaps the most abstract story is the ""System,"" in which essences of fire and water and other life forms are confounded by the reality of the Figure and the Non-figure, both intent on their own game, and indifferent to all other forms. Reading at its most demanding and thought-provoking: Manganelli insists that we explore fundamental questions in the most rigorous and intellectually challenging way. There are no short-cuts, but the effort has its rewards, hard won as they are.