1st edition (publ. Giulio Einaudi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Italo Calvino‘s novel, The Baron in the Trees is what it says on the tin. The title’s not metaphorical; it’s actually about a Baron who lives in the trees. The book reads like a collection of fables around a central character — said Baron. Like many fables, there’s definitely a sense of wonder and whimsy, and parts are quite funny.
The Baron wasn’t born in the trees (as that would lead to all sorts of questions of practical matters… though many such matters ARE addressed in the novel, to put readers’ minds at rest), but decided to live up there when he was 12, and his sister served decapitated snails on spears for dinner. (It was her thing to serve well-prepared yet disgusting meals to her family. She had problems.) He declared he’d never come down, and after a week or so, his family finally believes him. And, no, he doesn’t ever come down. Not once. A couple of close calls, sure, but he never once hit the ground.
The Baron isn’t content to just live in the trees; he wants to learn all there is to learn, and so he initially convinces his tutor to climb the trees as well for lessons, although soon (especially given the tutor’s basic incompetence), he turns exclusively to books and ends up teaching any who’ll listen. He even starts correspondences with the greatest minds of his time, and gains fame that way as well — not just a man living in trees exclusively, but a scholar as well.
It’s touches like this that make the Baron such a lovely character. The trees, while a good hook, aren’t the most interesting thing about him; he’d be a compelling character on the ground as well — though it’s hard to imagine him on the ground at all. He has more adventures than most Earth-bound folks, and meets many interesting characters along the way (including a bloodthirsty brigand he converts to quiet bookishness and another family of people who live in the trees, though not by choice), but he’s always the most compelling and level-headed of them.
If there’s something curious about the book, it’s that the female characters never seem to come out as, well, real people. Batista, his sister, and Viola, his girlfriend, both come off as deeply horrible, vicious, manipulative people; his mother isn’t bad, though her biggest characteristic is her maleness, and Ursula, the daughter of the patriarch of the tree family of exiles, isn’t in the book enough to really have a personality at all. It’s a bit curious, and I’m not quite sure what Calvino’s saying there, if anything in particular. After all; it’s often struck me as a technique that can lead to folly to point to imperfect characters as evidence of a prejudice of the author, as horrible women (and men, children, etc. etc.) DO exist in real life…. but when it seems that the options for women in a novel are a) Horrible, b) Masculine or c) Anonymous, it does seem a little odd.
Regardless, it’s a great book, and I’m looking forward to making my way through the rest of Calvino’s bibliography. His ear for fable (and the skill of the translator of this edition, Archibald Colquhoun, is to be admired as well) is wonderful, as well as his gift for modern fiction and sly references to metafiction as well — particularly the brilliant last paragraph, which I shan’t spoil.