The Baron in the Trees
Italo Calvino (1923-84)
The Baron in the Trees (BIT) is a popular fantasy that should delight young readers. It is the story of a young nobleman, Cosimo, in the 18th Century, who rebels against authority by abandoning his family and turning to a life confined entirely to the trees. As far fetched as this decision and its fulfillment may be, the author has Cosimo succeeding at most aspects of life (hunting, harvesting crops, playing games, reading, philosophizing, influencing local politics, enjoying a love life, all interacting with earth-bound humans and even making his peace with his father and family), all from his perch in the trees. More
Credulity is strained from the outset. Somehow, wherever Cosimo needs to go, miraculously, he is able to find a path through the trees that will get him there. Open spaces do not exist in his world. Quite how he covers the spaces between forests and isolated trees, is never made quite clear. As close as he ever comes to the ground, it is to be “perched on the horns of a stag”! This threshold conundrum is compounded, when we try to fathom how he “carries mattresses through the trees…lifts water-filled barrels into the trees and carries them through the trees…maintains a library of books…keeps ‘the fire alarm bell” that he hung in the trees from ringing willy nilly as the wind blew…” or how he was, in time, able to “dress like a Lord” and maintain clean, well appointed clothes, much less a body to match, while confining his activities to the trees, even sleeping “in a lather bag” hung in the trees. Perhaps most fatuous of all, the reason that he rejected his family and moved to his life in the trees, was triggered by his father insistence that he eat his vegetables; while most of us can sympathize with Cosimo’s repugnance, his solution seems a tad irrational and his ability to sustain such an arboreal existence seems comical.
Being written by an Italian in Italian and translated into English, we can never really know the level of his prose. The prose that we find in English is breezy, easy reading, a casual style fitting for the plot, however devoid of metaphors, elegant syntax or memorable descriptive passages. Unfortunately, there is no substantive development of Cosimo or any of the other characters; thus devoid of depth and dimensions, it is difficult to become attached to any of them, a crushing defect fatal to the longevity of any novel.
The author’s themes or life-lessons are equally light-hearted: e.g., associations of men for a common cause (such as fighting forest fires) brings out the best in mankind; to see the forest, one must position himself a good distance from it; and to share one’s ideas is to “lead” others.
For those who enjoy “the world of make believe”, BIT will satisfy. I can only wonder why someone hasn’t abridged and illustrated it and converted into a book for children.