Lightning in a Bottle: Conflict and Surrealism in Calvino's The Baron in the Trees
I fell in love with Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees the way you do with people and places you were never meant to get to know.
The detour you take in a town, just for some gas, where you end up staying for weeks.
The person you meet as you’re exiting a friend’s party, and wind up with on the landing, talking for hours.
The whiff of vanilla that leads you to a bakery wherein you while away your day.
The kitten you find yourself adopting after locking eyes through a window pane.
It was bewildering, in the most exquisite, delicious way, and I’m still wondering how or why it happened.
When the novel was assigned to me during a class, I expected to get through its short pages in the span of a fingersnap. What I got, instead, was an unintentional glimpse into magic, in its purest, most fanciful form; I felt like I had been transported again into my fairy-tale-and-whimsy childhood. I hadn’t yet finished the third chapter when I knew: my life would never be the same.
It’s easy to forget that most, (if not all) genre stories, are more or less allegorical; this is important to keep in mind because it drastically alters not only the meaning of the story, but the way it is interpreted by others.
While the premise itself is out of the left field (Cosimo, the son of a baron in 18th century Italy decides he’s had enough of everything, climbs up a tree in his family's backyard, and vows never to come down. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t.), Calvino’s story is very subtle with its surreality, so much so that we could loosely classify it as fiction, not necessarily genre fiction; but it is precisely this which gives me comfort. It shows that it is possible to tell stories that are only very slightly off kilter, peppered here and there with minor puzzling details, and which defy classification.
Instantly, I was reminded of one of my favorite books, Voltaire’s Candide, where larger-than-life, often nonsensical, always hilarious events unfold with mounting escalation. I oscillated, while reading both stories, between utter engrossment with the deep overarching themes, and having to seriously suspend my disbelief. Although it has its tragic undercurrents and surprisingly tender moments (occurring mostly between Cosimo and his father), the first few chapters of The Baron in the Trees are steeped in surrealism and the darkly comic, as highlighted by what the story tells, and the way it is told.
The latter is shown in the delegation of the role of protagonist: although Cosimo’s younger brother Biagio is the primary voice through which the story unfolds, he is almost invisible, a mere relay to the true main character of Calvino’s story: namely his older brother Cosimo — something even the title supports. Biagio is so vague about his own involvement, and shows, at times, so little self-reference that it is easy to forget that he is not an omniscient narrator, but an actual part of the family. This is not purely accidental: not only does he allow Cosimo’s own accounts to take over his own (Cosimo, at one point, recounts his first foray into the garden of their neighbors, the Ondariva, where he will meet and fall in love with the heiress of the family), but much of the account Biagio gives is of things he could not possibly know. He “follows” Cosimo in detail as he climbs and swings from trees, while admitting, at the same time, that from their position at the manor, the family can only see him flashing in and out of sight.
It’s as if Biagio is extrapolating from things his brother has told him (which, if we think of unreliable narrators, could very well not be true), or else this is happening because of a certain looseness, a certain supernatural element in the narration. At times, Biagio gives the readers insight into other characters’ internal goings-on: the fruit thieves’ (a Lost Boys-like group of urchins) impressions about Cosimo, Cosimo’s own rumination, the Generalessa (their mother)’s inherent understanding of the situation, etc… Again, this is something a strictly first person point-of-view should not have access to.
This extends to the content of Calvino’s tale as well. Although it is evidently a fabricated story, it has an aura of probability, as do most magical realism ones: Cosimo is a case study for a very (very) protracted tantrum. Additionally, every child has had, at some point, a fixation with a habit or hobby which drove their parent(s) crazy — here, it’s Cosimo’s tree climbing. But in many subtle ways, readers come to understand that this tale is not rooted in reality. While it may be that Cosimo doesn’t want to come down, it almost seems like he couldn’t even if he tried. Something is holding him back. More than once, he almost falls to the ground, but saves himself (or is saved…) in increasingly improbable ways. Other events occur, which challenge the feasibility of the story: at one point, Cosimo is attacked by a cat who, in truth, sounds more like some infernal beast, the product of a habitual liar’s fantasy. The passage reads like an epic poem, complete with twists and turns and a bloody victory for Cosimo. It’s almost too exciting to be true. What is more, the way the scenery is described is indeed otherworldly: the Ondariva garden particularly stands out, almost like a scene straight out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The subtle strangeness is not limited to places and events: every character, in their own way, is rather odd, in appearance and/or behavior. Viola (Cosimo’s fabulous love interest), the fruit thieves and Cosimo have, in common, an element of fiction about them: all three are spoken of before we truly get to know them, the way one would speak of neighborhood legends. This lends them an air of mystery, heightened by the fact that they are considered legends. They sound less like characters than icons, and they are all, in one way, impressed, surprised and/or intrigued by one another.
All of the above had me hooked, so to speak. But Calvino’s enchanting story is so much more than that. It is set during the precarious window of time before the French Revolution of 1789, which upended the societal order and sent revolutionary ripples throughout Europe. This dialogue, no pun intended, is handled charmingly in the novel: French, Italian, Russian are swirled around English with a casualness that would scare some, but infinitely delighted me. It was a reminder that this is a story about many people coming together during a turbulent historical time, conversing with each other even if they don’t necessarily understand each other, (although most of them probably did, in polyglot 18th century Europe). Maybe my emotions at the state of the world we live in, where powerful people are attempting to use these differences to divide us is making me slightly biased; but I found the inherent message in the multilingual text very beautiful indeed.
Additionally, Cosimo is of noble birth, which immediately sheds an uncertain light on the future of his family, and it is handled with a deftness and heart that I have rarely seen represented in history books.
At face value, Cosimo’s inner turmoil in The Baron in the Trees cannot possibly be taken seriously. This is not only because of the nature of said turmoil (refusing to come down from a tree, of all things), but because of the motivations behind it. His outburst at the beginning is framed as being a pushback against the strict rules of his family and status. But if this is a rebellion, it is a rather passive one. Cosimo doesn’t run away where he will never be seen again, he doesn’t strip himself of his title, his nationality, his ornaments, his manners: in fact, throughout the course of the story, he seemingly espouses many of the conventions he was previously so willing to reject. He goes to Mass (admittedly, he gradually ceases to), he remains polite and courteous with all, he communicates with his family, he communicates with others, he engages with Ursula, another love interest; in fact, the longer he lives in the trees, the more he embraces life, and the more he becomes invested in solving people’s problems.
As such, what appeared to be an act of (frankly, sensational) disobedience is reduced to a rather pitiful tantrum. When Cosimo begins to feel lonely and loveless, at one point of the story, this is less endearing than it is frustrating: he could simply choose to let go of his ego, he could easily remedy to his problem. His exile is self-imposed, after all; he is not acting, he is reacting. He is not working towards a goal, he is simply making a stand, and thus, considering that he is happy to indulge in the comforts of his life before the climb, the longer he sticks to his proverbial guns, the less credible said stand becomes.
Every conflict Cosimo encounters is exasperation-inducing, the way it is when children know they are making unreasonable demands, but still refuse to settle down. One begins to think that his bitterness is directed solely towards his family; perhaps Cosimo just wants to be impressed by someone, anyone, because he has been so disappointed in his own fare (and arguably, his family is more than dysfunctional). He befriends the thieves because they are polar opposites in status and personality; he befriends Gian dei Brughi (a book-loving retired brigand, and the best character in the book) because of his formidable reputation; he falls for Viola because she is unlike anyone he has ever met.
Thus, the issue of conflict and purpose become more nuanced in The Baron in the Trees. Cosimo’s stance is less aimless than it seems when one considers the grander metaphorical scale of his point. The most interesting thing to note is that while we do not know what Cosimo’s specific aims are — does he want to go somewhere? Is he trying to get a reaction from his father? —, we know what they are not. He does not want to live like his close-minded family (and in this unit, we must also include the limp, listless narrator Biagio who is as subservient as Cosimo is turbulent). He lets Ursula go because he doesn’t want the confinement that marrying her would entail; he learns, from observing his tragic uncle “what can happen to a man who separates his own fate from others, and he [manages] never to be like him”.
And herein we begin to get a more beautiful, moving picture of the story underneath the story: The Baron in the Tree is less about a boy’s hilarious, lifelong “stunt” than it is about the universal struggle of those who know that life has so much more to offer them. It is about the slight, small changes (escaping to a tree instead of to a different country) that produce immense results, borne out of a yearning for simple pleasures. Cosimo just wants to be a child, a misfit, have his own dog, socialize with those from different classes, help those in need, maintain freedom of thought and action, converse with fellow curious minds, educate himself, be his own man, not a leader, and so on, and so forth. These are things he evidently could not find within the constricting noble class — a sign that he had felt the temper of the changing times before they arrived.
Cosimo’s self-imposed exile is nothing more than a metaphor for the many changes made by those noblemen/women who understood that the reign of the noblesse was over in Europe — changes which were probably considered as baffling as climbing trees and deciding to stay there.