Melville fools readers of Moby Dick into the belief that Ahab and not Ishmael is the truly obsessed mind.
In The Baron in the Trees, Calvino performs a similar trick by fooling readers into believing that Cosimo is our hero, our “real” protagonist, and that the story is about Cosimo’s arboreal exploits and adventures.
Cosimo isn’t our protagonist.
Nor is the story “about” him except as a pretext for talking about something else.
Enter: Biagio, the younger brother of Cosimo. From his first person point of view, Biagio offers an account of Cosimo’s life in the trees. The story is cobbled together, he alleges, from Cosimo’s own words, plucked from the lower branches of the canopy, ripe or rotten we don’t really know. I mean, if Cosimo is outlandish enough to take to the trees in the first place, then he’s certainly inventive enough to confabulate.
As Biagio politely warns, Cosimo isn’t an entirely reliable source of information. In recounting his experiences in the trees, Cosimo amplifies, expands, subtracts and exaggerates until he hits the narrative nail on the head. So if the account of Cosimo’s life seems outlandish, Biagio isn’t to blame. He’s just reporting what Cosimo has told him.
Now if Cosimo is prone to exaggeration, why isn’t Biagio just as prone to it, too—maybe even more so? Perhaps he is the one “carried away by the mania of the storyteller.”
Yes, conventionality has its advantages. But walking the straight line of truth isn’t one of them.
So what’s fictionally “real” in The Baron in the Trees?
In Moby Dick, the whale is real although its meanings are many.
In Robinson Crusoe, Friday is fictionally real even though it’s Tuesday. Trust me.
In Atonement, Cecilia and Robbie’s consummated love isn’t fictionally real. It’s a narrator’s device to seek atonement.
In the Life of Pi, the Bengal tiger isn’t fictionally real. I’ve done the math. Richard Parker is a narrator’s device to show that some stories are so charming we should believe them. (God, I hate that book!)
In The Baron in the Trees, Biagio is fictionally real but his brother Cosimo flitting through the trees and making love to women and translating Virgil and hunting boar is not.
In the final and longest sentence of the novel, Calvino breathlessly reveals his ruse by identifying trees, which are symbols of playfulness, perspective and invention, with the life-enhancing powers of language and storytelling.
“That mesh of leaves and twigs of fork and froth, minute and endless, with the sky glimpsed only in sudden specks and splinters, perhaps it was only there so that my brother could pass through it with his tomtit’s tread, was embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after page, swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots and gaps, bursting at times into clear big berries coagulating at others into piles of tiny starry seeds, then twisting away, forking off, surrounding buds of phrases with frameworks of leaves and clouds, then interweaving again, and so running on and one and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless cluster of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.”
Biagio is our real hero.
And the story is about the glorious power of language. Cosimo, then, is a narrator’s device to show that storytelling is an essential element of life—providing support, shade, perspective, oxygen.
The Baron in the Trees is proof.