Tag Archives: Italian

On Italo Calvino’s “The Baron in the Trees”

16 May
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

I can’t possibly go a full year without reading and reviewing another Italo Calvino novel, and I’m growing my collection faster than I can read (par for the course). In fact, I’m known at the local bookstore as “the girl who buys all the Calvino,” a distinction of which I’m rather proud. Calvino’s fabulist The Baron in the Trees, though, didn’t seduce me the same way Invisible Cities did, and definitely didn’t completely bowl me over the way If on a winter’s night a traveler …. On the surface, The Baron in the Trees is a simple story of an eccentric nobleman who, on a whim, leaves his life of comfort and takes up residence in the trees, never to touch the ground again during his entire adult life. The surface story is a pretty wrapping for Calvino’s usual fare of intelligent commentary on communist politics and the philosophical concept of independence.

In a novel that reads like Don Quixote and reminds me more than just a little of Robin Hood, we learn about a young Baron named Cosimo whose wayward spirit and rebellion against a society of hypocritical nobility leads him away from the comforts of his home and into the trees of the Italian countryside. It’s the late 18th century, and Cosimo is 12 when he first climbs into a tree, never to set foot on earth again. Neither the pleading of his noble parents nor the fraying bond with his younger brother Biagio can convince Cosimo to go back on his decision. Once in the trees, the young baron learns to travel via a highway of twisting routes through oaks and olives and ilexes. He hunts with the help of his well-trained retrieving dachshund names Ottimo Massimo. He befriends the local peasants and helps them with fruit harvests. He even falls in love. Anything that can be done on earth, Cosimo can do in the trees, albeit with a dash more of eccentric flavor.

Sure, the Swiss Family Robinson did it, but on easy mode. And with zebras and stuff instead of Ottimo Mossimo the dachshund.

Sure, the Swiss Family Robinson did it, but on easy mode. And with zebras and stuff instead of Ottimo Massimo the dachshund.

The Baron in the Trees is nothing if not a goofy, entertaining parable of independence. The whole story is narrated by Biagio, the brother left behind on the earth, and he curates the stories told him by Cosimo who, as he grows into a man, becomes less and less reliable in his recounts of amorous escapades or friendships with brigands or battles with pirates. Cosimo and Biagio aren’t your typical unreliable narrators, but they are story weavers, sometimes taking a seemingly roundabout route to a destination, making TBitT feel like a rambling oral account from a doddering uncle who spends too much time refilling his punch cup at family functions. While this is fun and all, the only passage I felt I truly enjoyed and admired was the book’s final two pages where Calvino’s vivid imagery really breaks through.

"... anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it."

“… anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it.”

Read it if … you enjoy the fabulist genre. TBitT reads like a grown-up’s fairy tale: it’s short, sweet, and full of blatant symbolism.

Don’t read it if … you have a phobia of jagulars who drop down on you from trees when you look up at them. Also, don’t read it if you don’t want to spend a decent amount of your time untangling Calvino’s symbolism and political/cultural references. You may still get a lot of enjoyment from Cosimo’s escapades, but this is much more than rom-com in the Italian countryside.

This book is like … Candide, in all its ironic and fun-loving trappings. Voltaire even plays a small part in TBitT. If you like the genre, though, you should also look up H. Rider Haggard for more adventure or Ambrose Bierce for more sadness.

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino. The man. The myth. The legend.