Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Il Barone Rampante" (The Baron in the Trees) by Italo Calvino

Date of publication: 1957
Genre: fiction, historical novel, fairytale / magical realism
Setting and time: Ombrosa, a fictional small town in the north west of Italy, near Genoa, in the late 18th and early 19th century
Themes: anti-conformism, role of individual and community, family, environment, romance.

About the author: Italo Calvino (1923-1985) is one of the most important contemporary Italian fiction writers of the 20th century. Calvino's first novel, Il Sentiero dei Nidi di Ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1947) depicted resistance movement, seen through the eyes of a young boy and in Neorealistic manner. The work became famous for its fable-like twists in the narrative. Il Visconte Dimezzato (The Cloven Viscount, 1951) marked Calvino's break with the common themes connected with the experience of war: it is the story of a man cut in half by a cannonball during the Turkish-Christian war. It is the first volume of a trilogy dedicated to 'the ancestors'. The novels that follow are Il Barone Rampante (The Baron in the Trees) and Il Cavaliere Inesistente (The Nonexistent Knight, 1959). These fantastic tales, hovering between allegory and pure fantasy, brought him international acclaim and reputation. Le Città Invisibili (Invisible Cities, 1972) is a surreal fantasy in which Marco Polo invents dream-cities to amuse Kubla Khan - a city on stilts, a city made of waterpipes, a spiderweb city, a city that cannot be forgotten and so on. Of Se una Notte d’Inverno un Viaggiatore (If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, 1979) Salman Rushdie declared: ‘He is writing down what you have always known except that you've never thought of it before’. The story alternates the opening chapters of 10 different novels, opening with a man discovering that the copy of the novel he has recently purchased is defective, a Polish novel having been bound within its pages. The book includes a discourse on the experience of reading and writing. Calvino died in 1985 in Siena.

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) Cosimo Piovasco is the son of a baron and leads an aristocratic life in a small Italian town called Rondò. One day he argues with his father and climbs a tree, finding a good shelter from the worries of life. He then decides to live the remainder of his life on the trees, finding a new perspective on the world. He leads a life full of passions, bonding with both his family and the townspeople. His life features a passionate love story, involvement in politics, encounters with famous people and some unlikely adventures.

Some thoughts: It is hard to define The Baron in the Trees in terms of genre or even intent of the author. At times, the story is similar to a fairytale, at times it is more realistic. Calvino’s fiction is sometimes labelled as postmodernism or magical realism. In my opinion, this label would apply for his later fiction, that can be compared to that of Borges and Cortazar, but the ancestors’ trilogy is different from everything else. Maybe only Buzzati would make a decent comparison.
Going back to the novel, I really liked the fact that the whole stories is not told from Cosimo’s point of view, but from his younger brother’s: it is a way of being detached from the story, but not too much. It is in large part Biagio’s re-telling of the stories Cosimo recounts on himself. You can never be sure when Cosimo is exaggerating his adventures and when his tales are real. In other words, you're dealing with an unreliable narrator à la Henry James. It’s funny how Calvino can make Cosimo interact with historical characters such as Diderot or Napoleon. Actually, the interaction between fairytales and historical novels is unusual, if not unheard of. Cosimo’s eccentric life on the trees reminds me of Shakespeare's ‘though this be madness, yet there is method in't’. In fact, Cosimo’s choice of living in the trees is dictated by the understanding that his parents’ priorities are not what he wants from life (his father chases ideals that no longer exist while his mother commemorates long-forgotten battles). It is a book about philosophy and existentialism, about alternative lifestyles and the value of community. How else could Cosimo survive on the trees without the help of his townspeople?
I was wondering if Calvino is appreciated outside Italy. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is one of my favourite Italian novels of all times. There’s a recent novel that has a connection to this book: Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), about an Indian boy trying to avoid the responsibilities of adult life and thus starting an eccentric life on the trees, like Cosimo. Did Kiran Desai read The Baron in the Trees? I think so. Did she attempt to rewrite Calvino’s book from her point of view? I don’t know. Desai’s novel is as grounded in a small Indian village as much as Calvino’s novel is grounded in the northwest of Italy. Comparative literature is indeed an interesting subject!


  1. Thanks for visiting my crazy blog... I see that you live in Italy (I'm jealous), love books (ditto), and watch LOST (me too). I think we'll get along splendidly.

  2. Im not aloud to say my nameFebruary 25, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    mmm buddy i think the same thing