Monday, June 25, 2007

06:42 The Baron In The Trees

The Baron In The Trees
Italo Calvino

A delight. One day in late June 1767, the young Cosimo di Rondo, first-born son of a local baron, upset at his sister Battista’s latest perverse culinary creation, climbs a tree in protest…and never comes down for the rest of his life. What begins as a child’s willful act of defiance evolves into one man’s desire to live free of earth’s constraints, even though his life is determined by the trees in which he lives.

The irony is that, even though Cosimo tries to live a solitary life, he is still connected to the lives of others. He fights in wars, meets statesmen and philosophers, battles pirates, farms, hunts, has love affairs, and all without ever setting foot on the ground. The Baron In The Trees can be read in many ways: fable, satire, ribald tale, outsider’s view of the Age of Enlightenment. Despite the eccentricity of the plot, Calvino’s language is never coy or precious. Cosimo’s younger brother narrates the tale, his bewildered yet intrigued tone prevents it from becoming an exercise in terminal whimsy.

As with any novel that records the span of a character’s life or a specific historical era, there is a sense of loss that pervades The Baron In The Trees, as in this early passage, included for verisimilitude:

I don’t know if it’s true, the story they tell in books, that in ancient days a monkey could have left Rome and skipped from tree to tree until it reached Spain, without ever touching earth. The only place so thick with trees in my day was the whole length, from end to end, of the gulf of Ombrosa and its valley right up to the mountain crests; the area was famous everywhere for this.

Nowadays these parts are very different. It was after the arrival of the French that people began chopping down trees as if they were grass which is scythed every year and grows again. They have never grown again. At first we thought it was something to do with the war, with Napoleon, with the period. But the chopping went on. Now the hillsides are so bare that when we look at them, we who knew them before, it makes us feel bad.

The abundance of life inevitably falling victim time’s sharp ax. But at least a baron in the trees (as well as The Baron In The Trees) pays tribute to the rich strangeness possible in life until the final chop.

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