Defying Norms

Without a doubt, Italo Calvino is one of the most recognized names in contemporary Italian literature, if not world literature. He was born in Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba to Italian parents working there as scientists. The Calvino family would return to Italy and settle down in Sanremo on the Italian Riviera shortly after their son’s birth. It was there that Calvino was raised and studied in public schools. When his studies were disrupted during the Second World War and his parents abducted by the Germans, Calvino suited up for the Garibaldi Brigade, a partisan resistance group active in the Maritime Alps. Following the end of the war, he completed his degree in literature while, at the same time, working for the Communist periodical L’Unità and for the publishing house of Einaudi. He also once edited the left-wing magazine Il Menabò di Letteratura. 

Calvino’s earlier works of fiction reference his experiences during the Italian Resistance, including his debut novel Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947, The Path to the Nest of Spiders). The 1950s saw a dramatic change in Calvino’s writing approach. After being disillusioned by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and leaving the Italian Communist Party, he shifted his prose to fantasy and allegorical literature. This shift would prove crucial in his path toward consolidating his legacy as one of the world’s most renowned writers. This produced most popular works, including the timeless Le cosmicomiche (1965, Cosmicomics), and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979, If On A Winters Night A Traveler). Another book that encapsulated this transition was his 1957 novel Il barone rampante which was translated into English in 1959 as The Baron in the Trees.

Set in the fictional village of Ombrosa on Italy’s Ligurian Riviera, The Baron in the Trees commenced on June 15, 1767, a pivotal time in the life of the young Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the titular baron in the trees. Cosimo’s destiny was cast in stone as he was the eldest son of a noble family with Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò at its helm. His family’s values, however, were stuck in time. Following an argument with his father during dinner, Cosimo run from the family home and climbed the trees of their family garden. He resolved never to come down to earth ever again. The argument between father and son was rooted in the young baron’s refusal to eat a snail soup which was followed by a main course of snails. Deciding to live an arboreal existence was Cosimo’s act of defiance.

“There is the moment when the silence of the countryside gathers in the ear and breaks into a myriad of sounds:a croaking and squeaking, a swift rustle in the grass, a plop in the water, a pattering on earth and pebbles, and high above all, the call of the cicada, The sounds follow one another, and the ear eventually discerns more and more of them -just as fingers unwinding a ball of wool feel each fiber interwoven with progressively thinner and less palpable threads, The frogs continue croaking in the background without changing the flow of sounds, just as light does not vary from the continues winking of stars, But at every rise or fall of the wind every sound changes and is renewed. All that remains in the inner recess of the ear is a vague murmur: the sea.”

~ Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

Through the perspective of Cosimo’s younger brother, Biagio, we learn about Cosimo’s life above the ground, which he initially spent in the trees of their family garden. Later on, as Cosimo grew older, he moved to the woods adjacent to his family’s estate. The idea of living on trees and not ever stepping foot on earth again, on the surface, was an absurd idea. Nevertheless, Cosimo made it work. With the passage of time, he learned to adapt to a life disconnected from mainstream society and operate on his own devices. The sheer tenacity to make things work to his advantage was astounding. He devised ways to wash and cook. He found ways to milk a goat and even had access to potable water. Being stripped of the comfort of typical living has not weighed down on Cosimo. Rather, he saw being pared down to the basics as an opportunity to learn.

His new lifestyle made it imperative for Cosimo to switch in mindset. For instance, he equipped himself and turned into a hunter lest he will have to endure the elements in what little he possessed, sheer clothing that does not ensure any level of protection or warmth. The fur he took from animals he hunted such as badgers he wove into sturdy jackets and other articles of clothing that can withstand the harshness of winter. However, his quotidian life was not solely preoccupied with the task of surviving the wilderness. Disconnecting from society in general, Cosimo was able to venture into other pursuits such as reading and similar intellectual pursuits. He became well-read, an avid reader of both literature and philosophy, among them works in tune with prominent thinkers of his time. At one point, Cosimo even caught the attention of French writer and satirist Voltaire and other luminaries such as Napoleon Bonaparte.

The story of Cosimo developed into an allegory about independence from the crutches and demands of society. Cosimo’s act of rebellion was a microcosm for piercing the standards society have set for everyone. Since time immemorial, it is inculcated into us that we must adhere to a set of established social norms and etiquettes. At a young age, we were trained to behave in a certain way. We were raised to behave in a manner prescribed by society; anything beyond that is unacceptable, an aberration. These expectations eventually turn into pressures which inevitably end up in us conforming to what society demands. We have become subservient and our brains respond to the synapses wired into them by society. Our perception of what was normal and of the world was shaped by society’s definition of normal.

With society’s rigid demands for conformity, we are nothing but the products of a humungous factory. We are forced to think alike, behave alike, and respond alike. There is nothing to distinguish us from each other beyond our physical traits. We are carbon copies of each other, products of what society deemed as normal, as acceptable. Then, once in a blue moon, comes those who were stifled and limited by these norms and challenge them. However, they are, oftentimes, ostracized, worse, accused of heresy. But what is heresy for if not a hardline means to reevaluate and challenge the way we perceive and accept norms. This can be gleaned from how the townspeople of Ombrosa ridiculed Cosimo, particularly at the start of his act of rebellion. His family was also ashamed of his actions. No one had his back.

“This he understood: that association makes people stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts, and gives a joy which is rarely to be had by keeping to oneself, the joy of realizing how many honest decent capable people there are for whom it is worth giving one’s best (while living just for oneself very often the opposite happens, of seeing people’s other side, the side which makes one keep one’s hand always on the hilt of one’s sword).”

~ Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

While Cosimo’s actions can be perceived as eccentric by many, it was not entirely a rejection of society or community life. His fight for personal independence has not precluded him from reaching out and helping his community. Perched on his elevated vantage point, he observed the events taking place on the ground. During a drought, he organized the villagers into firefighting squads to counter arsonists burning the woods. When a pack of wolves was starting to wreak havoc on his hometown, he devised an ingenious plan to eliminate them. He infiltrated the operations of a group of pirates. In his own way, he was contributing to the community. His contributions to the welfare of the village were seminal in reversing their initial perceptions of him. Cosimo’s heroics, however, has not softened his family’s perception of Cosimo. His father, in particular, remained embarrassed by his son’s adamant resolve to keep on living in the trees.

Distancing himself from the mainstream has also allowed Cosimo to venture into a world brimming with adventure. He met an eclectic cast of characters, some of whom he even befriended. Chief among them was Gian dei Brughi, a bandit who was on the run from authorities. Suspecting that he was not someone to fear, Cosimo took him into his fold, hiding him from those who were hunting him. Cosimo’s and dei Brughi’s shared passion for reading also made them hit it off from the ground. Cosimo would even be the bandit’s main supplier of books such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Cosimo also met a group of Spanish nobles living in the trees of Olivabassa, a nearby city. They were banished by King Carlos III and were biding their time in the trees while waiting for an invitation to return home.

The Baron in the Trees was a multilayered narrative that also masqueraded as a coming-of-age story. With the passage of time and with his numerous encounters, Cosimo’s emotions and perceptions of the world were taking a more prominent shape. The story was propped with overtones of two romantic affairs. The first one was with Viola, whom Cosimo fell in love with shortly after moving to the trees. The second one was with the daughter of Don Frederico’s daughter, Ursula. Apart from the development of romantic emotions, Cosimo also was introduced to new ideas. The ideas of Enlightenment were introduced by the Spaniards and captured the transformation taking place all over Europe.

The story was juxtaposed against the French Revolution which saw the fall of the French monarchy and the ascension of democracy. This characterized the period, with liberty, revolution, and democracy taking on new definitions. These historical contexts gave the story more texture. With all the different subjects and themes that it worked on, the novel was lush, as lush as the forest and the woods that Calvino captured in the novel. Ombrosa’s rich vegetation was home to a diverse set of trees, from oaks to mulberry trees to magnolias to Indian chestnuts to pines and olives. This lush setting has become Cosimo’s domain. In a way, the novel pays homage to trees and the mysteries of woods. The lush tapestry and the story’s different elements were all woven together by Calvino’s lyrical writing.

“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 thread, 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 on and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless cluster of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.”

~ Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

The second volume in the fantasy trilogy Our Ancestors, The Baron in the Trees was an ambitious undertaking. But despite its ambition, the book was not without its flaws. The execution undermined the novel’s overall impact. The mix of fairy tales and social commentaries never fully meshed out. It made up for a predictable read and a weak plot. Cosimo also remained a mystery all throughout the story. He was studied from a distance, through the lenses of his younger brother, Biagio. Cosimo remained out of the readers’ reach and his complete psychological profile was never fully captured.

Despite its flaws, The Baron in the Trees remained a compelling tale that covered a vast territory of subjects. What at the onset appeared to be a spontaneous act of an eccentric character slowly evolved into a complex story about nonconformity and independence. It was about challenging norms and standing up for ones’ self. In a way, Cosimo was Calvino’s conduit. An avid reader who enjoyed Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and had more interest in literature as a child, Calvino was the odd out in a family more inclined towards science. Calvino and Cosimo were both the proverbial black sheep of their family. Beyond allegories of independence, the novel captured shifting tides of history, humanity, and ideas. It was also a coming-of-age story sprinkled with romantic overtones. While Cosimo appeared reclusive, his story carried a deep message about the importance of being a part of a community.

Rating

68%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

Italian writer Italo Calvino first captivated me with his postmodernist novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. The book was out of the box and provided me a better appreciation of literature in general. Needless to say, it was a book that exceeded my expectations and made me yearn for more of Calvino’s works. It took four years after reading my first Calvino novel but I was finally able to make good on this promise. On the surface, The Baron in the Trees was certainly captivating. The book cover and the title were enough to convince me to read the book, thus, forming part of my May 2022 European Literature Month. Unlike If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, The Baron in the Trees was a more straightforward story although both lacked robust plots. The latter was also an easier read. However, despite this, I found The Baron in the Trees a little underwhelming. I appreciate the message and the story. It was a promising story but it never quite reached its full potential. It felt like Calvino relied mainly on the absurdity of the central idea and let the other elements fall at the seams. It wasn’t a great book but it wasn’t bad either. This, however, is not going to stop me from reading more of Calvino’s works.

Book Specs

Author: Italo Calvino
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Publisher: Vintage
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 288
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

From the age of twelve, the Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo makes his home among ash, elm, magnolia, plum, and almond. He walks through paths made from the twisted branches of olive, sleeps in a holly oak, bathes in a fountain hewn from poplar bark. An aerial library holds the books with which he educates himself in philosophy and mathematics. Suspended among the leaves, the Baron adventures with bandits and pirates, conducts a passionate love affair, and watches the Age of Enlightenment pass by beneath him.

About the Author

To learn more about the renowned Italian writer, click here.