The Baron in the Trees is the first book I read from my Classics Club list, as chosen for me by the recent spin. The version I read was translated by Archibald Colquhoun. I’d previously read (and been rather bemused and charmed by) If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Calvino (which I never got around to reviewing, sadly).
About the Book:
It is a disagreement over eating snails that sends eight-year-old Biagio’s older brother, Cosimo, up into the trees in the backyard of the family’s estate. In no time, this impulsive whim has calcified into a resolution, and from that day forward, Cosimo never again sets foot on the earth.
What does a life lived in the trees look like for an eighteenth-century nobleman — a proper baron, once his father has died and passed the title on? That is what Biagio sets out to chronicle. Relying on his own observations, the stories of others, and the tales he hears from Cosimo himself, Biagio assembles the story of his brother’s arboreal existence as his own life draws toward its close.
It seems to me that Italo Calvino had one of those delightfully creative literary minds whose premises alone make their novels worth reading. (In that respect — though not really in any others — he reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Jose Saramago.) What I like in particular is the way in which Calvino approaches his off-the-wall topics as though they were completely commonplace and not at all surprising. He makes you complicit, inviting you, too, to suspend your disbelief.
The Baron in the Trees was fun. Not because it’s a rollicking tale or full of tricks and antics or anything like that, but because it stretches the limits of what we’re used to in just one way. Calvino’s is not a fantasy world, nor is it some future Earth. In fact, it’s set in the past, in the very normal Italian community of Ombrosa, and peopled with the sorts of characters you’d expect to find in such a story — except that one of them lives exclusively in the trees.
Cosimo is both an enigma and a likable guy. He’s principled, earnest, kind, a touch eccentric, and just a little naive sometimes. He engenders respect as well as curiosity, both in the reader and in his fellow characters. From his perch, he helps his neighbors, furthers his education, corresponds with the great minds of Europe, solves problems for himself and others, and even conducts romances.
I was pleasantly surprised by how readable the novel is. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is rather convoluted and trippy, like you keep walking through door after door until you’re not really sure which way is up or which plot line you’re in. It’s good, but it takes some concentration to read. The Baron in the Trees, on the other hand, was quite readable, and I whizzed through it.
My one complaint isn’t even a complaint, really; it’s more of a curiosity or a wish. It has to do with who tells the story. Calvino’s use of Biagio as narrator allows a more objective view of Cosimo, certainly. Biagio is able to share insights and fill in details from the wider world that Cosimo’s perspective would have rendered impossible (or at least rather difficult). But Biagio’s view into Cosimo’s life is necessarily limited. Much of what he shares he admits comes from hearsay or from his brother’s constantly shifting stories. What I missed most, I think, were the particulars of Cosimo’s life: how he managed his daily affairs, what he thought about, how he saw his situation and the world around him. In short, a record of his life in his own words. But it would have been a different novel, and not necessarily a better one.
Fun fact: Apparently The Baron in the Trees is the second in Calvino’s Our Ancestors trilogy, the first and third installments of which are titled The Cloven Viscount and The Nonexistent Knight. With titles like those, I must admit I’m a little curious…
The Verdict: Enjoyable
I know If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is probably Calvino’s most famous novel, and it’s worth tackling. But I think The Baron in the Trees would be a nice introduction, too — or a good follow-up read should you want to explore more of what Calvino has to offer.
Can you recommend a book that stretches the limits of our accustomed reality in just one small, mostly believable way? Or perhaps one that delighted you with its quirky premise?