Psst, that’s right- you, down there. Come on up. Give me your hand. Okay? There you go, watch that low branch. Have a seat, no — here, this is a better spot. Comfy? I know, I know, it’s different — but you’re here now. I just have to tell you a story about the boy who lived in the trees…
Italo Calvino’s magical 1957 novel, The Baron in The Trees, is the story of young Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, an eighteenth century nobleman who leaves his family dinner table one night at the age of twelve and climbs into a tree behind his family home. It’s a rash move. He’s ill prepared and his family even less so, met with disbelief that their oldest son should take such drastic action in proving a point.
Cosimo said: ”I told you I don’t want any, and I don’t!” and pushed away his plateful of snails. Never had we seen such disobedience.
Yet move into the trees Cosimo does, and in so doing, he enters a world of wonder liltingly written by Calvino. The translation by Archibald Colquhoun skilfully reveals Calvino’s humor and supremely deft description. The words fly from their pages in a manner not unlike that of boys running through stacks of sun-dried leaves.
The Baron in The Trees is a quintessentially winsome tale, eliciting a childlike sense of anticipation as the reader encounters delight upon delight. Cosimo, unsteady boy at first, embarks upon his adventure in a state of mixed trepidation and raw bravado, beset by practical concerns as well as more serious ones. He must find a way to eat, sleep, and bathe while remaining vigilant against a local brigand and a cunning feral cat. Never fear, Calvino brilliantly lets the reader hop closely alongside as Cosimo craftily meets his physical dilemmas and soon branches into the loftier concerns of adulthood. In little over 200 pages, among other feats, Cosimo manages to: hunt, garden, sew, rehabilitate a criminal (using literature no less!), read voluminously, correspond with the high and mighty, make war, travel, make love, publish a newspaper, and own a dog, all while maintaining close ties with his nameless younger brother who serves as narrator.
While down below our world lay flattened, and our bodies looked quite disproportionate and we certainly understood nothing of what he knew up there — he who spent his nights listening to the sap running through its cells; the circles marking the years inside the trunks; the patches of mold growing ever larger helped by the north wind; the birds sleeping and quivering in their nests, then resettling their heads in the softest down of their wings; and the caterpillar waking, and the chrysalis opening.
Love enters Cosimo’s world as well, and Calvino’s luxurious description of the match flits between playful sensuality and gentle poignancy.
On summer afternoons, when sleep took the two lovers side by side, a squirrel would enter, looking for something to nibble, and stroke their faces with its feathery tail or plunge its teeth into a big toe. Then they would pull the curtains to more carefully; but a family of tree mice began gnawing at the roof of the pavilion and fell down on their heads.
This was the time in which they were discovering each other, telling of their lives, questioning.
”And did you feel alone?”
”I hadn’t you.”
”But alone before the rest of the world?”
”No. Why? I always had contacts with other people; I picked fruit, pruned trees, studied philosophy with the Abbé, fought the pirates. Isn’t it like that for everyone?”
”You’re the only one like that, that’s why I love you.”
The world of everyday concern follows Cosimo into the trees as well, bringing family strife, heartbreak and even the intrusion of Napoleon into the ”land of vines.” In one splendid section, Cosimo regales his brother with his own version of how he shelters the Lieutenant-poet Agrippa Papillon of Rouen and volunteers of the Republican army.
With the French army I tried to have as little to do as possible, as we know what armies are, every time they move there’s some disaster. But I had taken rather a liking to that outpost of Lieutenant Papillon and was rather worried about what might happen to them. For the immobility of the front threatened to be fatal to the squadron under the poet’s command. Moss and lichen were growing on the troopers’ uniforms, and sometimes even heather and fern; the tops of the busbies were nested in by screech owls, or sprouted and flowered with lilies of the valley; their thigh boots clotted with soil into compact clogs. The whole platoon was about to take root. Lieutenant Agrippa Papillon’s yielding attitude toward nature was sinking that squad of brave men into a fusion of animal and vegetable.
Thus Cosimo comes to soldier on, through ingenious implements of the forest and the fancy of Calvino. The life and times of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò all too quickly pass under the reader’s eye with dapples of light and dark, some soaking rain, and great sprinklings of love and generosity from their author. In finishing the novel, I knew that ”all was to change, and no Cosimo will ever walk the trees again.” But – wait here with me for just a few seconds- listen, listen close.