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This isn’t the first time I’ve gone to the library looking for a book by a certain author and ended up with another title because the first wasn’t available. Sometimes this doesn’t work out so well (See my rant on Coover’s Smut, April 14), but sometimes it does. That’s just fine with me. No use pretending we have much control over life, and some of the best adventures come via happenstance. In Calvino’s case, The Baron in the Trees was a fine adventure indeed.

I’m tempted to call Baron a fable even though there are no talking animals because it has that fanciful, allegorical feel to it. A 12-year-old baron (1787) has a dinner table spat with his parents, goes off to climb a tree, declaring he’ll never come down. And he never does.

It seemed to me that the allegory had to do with the life of an artist or an intellectual who eschews and lives above convention. That analogy holds true for the most part, but Cosimo involves himself as well in a number of worldly affairs from war to romance. He manages to be a libertine, to travel quite a long way through forests that (according to the narrator, his pedestrian, humdrum brother/patron who provides the funds to support many of Cosimo’s basic needs.) no longer exist in Ombrosa. From his elevated height, Cosimo is able to look down on the foibles of earthbound folk, to help the poor and the pirated. He also manages to become quite learned, trading pelts and feathers for books, carrying on long intellectual conversations with people on the ground.

There’s a sad edge to a lot of this from the start. We wish we might fly and see the sky as inaccessible. For Cosimo, it’s the other way around.

Beyond was the sea. A fait clatter of stones. It was dark. The clatter became a hammer: the pony raced along striking sparks against pebbles. From the low twisted branches of a pine tree my brother looked as the clear-cut shadow of the fair girl cross the beach. From the black sea rose a wave with a faint crest–it curled higher, advanced all white, broke and grazed the shadow of the horse and girl racing at full speed; Cosimo on the pine tree found his face wet with salty spray.

There are many such semi-spiritual passages in Baron, and there are many comical ones also. The tricks he plays on two rival suitors for his heart’s love, for example, are hilarious serve also as deft stabs at pretension and the romantic convention–both literary and societal.

Baron is an enjoyable and even enlightening read. And, as the above-quoted passage shows, the reader is in the hands of a real master of language. I think I’ll go get another book I wasn’t looking for.

Sitting up

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