Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees is a brilliant and inventive novel.
Because I want to focus mainly on aspects that occur beneath the surface of the story, let’s knock the plot out of the way, fast.
In June, 1767, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, 12, is fed up with family life and vanishes “from sight among the close-knit silvery leaves,” of olives, oaks and cherries. Cosimo never sets foot on ground again, ever. From arboreal heights, he hunts boar, foxes, hares and pheasants. He sews clothing, plants crops and trades with other villagers. He takes lovers in the trees, many of them, and studies the classics. But mostly he reads, reads, reads. This is noteworthy: Cosimo is a character in a novel made up of words who consumes words like carbon dioxide and gives off something else in return. What this something is will have to wait till next time when I share the glorious magic of the last sentence of Calvino’s superb fairy tale.
At the moment, however, having little or no ambition, I simply want to recount the horrors of Battista, Cosimo’s older sister. After all, she sends him fluttering to the trees in the first place. I savor the visually precise details of Calvino’s writing and hope you do, too. Apparently Battista is a cross between a rat and a witch cruelly disguised as a sister. Even her dad “did not dare look at her, for, with her staring eyes under the starched coif, her narrow teeth set tight in her yellow rodent’s face, she frightened him too.” In addition to her snoutish appearance, Battista has a knack for plating wicked culinary delights. “Once she made some pate toast, really exquisite, of rats’ livers; this she never told us until we had eaten them and pronounced them good; and some grasshoppers’ claws, crisp and sectioned, laid on an open tart in a mosaic; and pigs’ tails baked as if they were little cakes; and once she cooked a complete porcupine with all its quills…, a baby porcupine, rosy and certainly tender.”
At last Battista serves a plate of sadistically prepared snails and Cosimo bolts for the upper canopy, and is gone.