Has a book given you so much happiness that you kiss it goodnight? Have you ever loved a book so much you don’t want the characters to leave you? These kind of books don’t come to your hands very often, but when they do it’s impossible to forget them. That happened to me with the The Baron in the Trees (Il Barone Rampante, 1957) by the great Italo Calvino.
The book was suggested by my mum, who is a voracious reader and luckily has an excellent literary taste, so most of what she recommends it is worth reading. This little book made a huge impression on my mum, she talked and talked and talked about it but it was until the Christmas holidays that I got my brown eyes into it.
The main idea for the novel is very simple. One day, Cossimo Piovasco Di Rondó, refuses to eat a disgusting snail dish prepared by his weird and sadist sister Battista, and in an act of total rebellion leaves the table, climbs up a tree and decides never to come down. Ever.
The story is narrated by Cosimo’s brother, Biagio, who tells us the adventures lived by Cosimo during his life on the trees. Sometimes, it feels like a children’s book as we go through the stages of Cosimo’s life as a hunter when he manages to kill a wild cat and make a hat with its skin, wearing it for the rest of his life. He also becomes the guardian of the forests of Ombrosa, since he manages to move around freely through the branches of the trees able to see fires from the distance and call for help.But The Baron in the Trees is also a love story, Cosimo falls in love with Viola since he first saw her as a girl and waits all his life to see her again. In the meantime there are encounters with Spanish exiles also living on the trees in a nearby town as well as some Russian travellers. Certain passages in the book are incredibly moving and it is so because Calvino follows simple ideas to fill of life the novel. For example, when Gian dei Brughi, the most wanted thief loses interest in terrorising people after discovering the pleasure of reading. Genius.
But behind the story, lies a crucial period in the history of Europe. During his life on the trees, Cosimo and Biagio experience the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and its no coincidence that the story is set in the region of Linguria, at the time when the Italian provinces where not united. Calvino also present us with a portrait of a unique family struggling to keep their noble dreams alive at a time when monarchies and nobility are crumbling down.
For many The Baron in the Trees is about the triumph of individuality and the breaking social rules that condition our existence. It’s about celebrating the freedom to choose what we want to do with our lives leaving behind what is “expected” from us. Cosimo, the Baron, keeps his promise and never comes down. He’s present in the lives of his family, his town and history, and it seems like having Cosimo on the branches of the trees was his true mission in life.
I suffered as I see the book coming to an end, I kissed it good night, I wanted Cosimo and Biagio never to leave me. I wanted the story to go on forever and have these extraordinary characters to keep me company. I guess that’s why I read, to be able to travel in time and space and meet new friends on the way.