The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante)  – ★★★1/2
The Baron in the Trees is the fourth book of Italian author Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities ), telling of a young man, Cosimo, of the eighteenth century who decides to live on trees, never going down, sticking to his own principle that he would never touch the ground again. His family soon realises that what might have started as a childish tantrum has transformed into something big and life-changing. In time, Cosimo manages not only to live on the trees, but also to hunt, cook food, sleep and wash his clothes up there. He makes himself useful to others and develops friendship with a local girl Viola. The exploration of the new world of Cosimo up in the trees is fascinating and Calvino’s existentialist concept of one man eschewing society and its norms is appealing. It is then even more surprising to learn that, unfortunately, The Baron in the Trees is also quite plot-less and, in the end, delivers little by way of substance.
The story begins with a rebellion of a twelve-year old Cosimo who, so far, has endured a strict upbringing regime to mould him into a Lord: “life at our home was like a constant dress rehearsal for an appearance at court” [Calvino/Colquhoun, 1957/77: 29]. This surreal tale is told from the perspective of his younger brother who says that Cosimo’s revolt began when he refused to eat snails at dinner and, thus, “decided to separate his fate” from that of his family. Once up on a tree, Cosimo never gets down and soon realises that tree-climbing presents him with interesting opportunities to investigate the neighbour’s exotic garden and travel for miles on tree branches alone: “[Cosimo] realised that as the trees were so thick he could move for several miles by passing from one branch to another, without ever needing to descent to earth. Sometimes a patch of bare ground forced him to make long detours, but he soon got to know all the necessary routes and came to measure distances by quite different estimates than ours, bearing always in mind the twisted trail he had to take over the branches” [Calvino/Colquhoun, 1957/77: 29]. Cosimo also develops a hobby of reading books, a pastime introduced to him by a thief Gian dei Brughi, and the contrast between two brothers grows: “I earned to follow him …to me he seemed to have opened the doors of a new kingdom, one to be looked at no longer with alarm and mistrust but with shared enthusiasm” [1957/77: 40], says our narrator about his brother Cosimo.
The rules for nobility in the eighteenth century must have been strict, and in his decision, in his “reversal to the state of nature”, Cosimo makes a powerful statement. Inwardly, he seeks freedom from societal norms and rules and now, up on a tree, can see humanity “from above” and, thus, more clearly than other people. In part, Calvino’s book also makes a point about how wrong it is to treat someone differently or discriminate against them simply because they hold different beliefs and have eccentric behaviour. These “eccentric” people may become pioneers in some new field and, since societal ties no longer hold them down, can develop a new way of looking at the world. It becomes clear early in the novel that Cosimo on a tree did not lose his innate sense of morality, dignity and justice, even though he longer takes part in fancy-dressing and outward displays of gentlemanly conduct: “A gentleman…is such whether he is on earth or on the treetops…if he behaves with decency”, “Just because I’m a few yards higher up, does it mean that good teaching can’t reach me?” [Calvino/Colquhoun, 1957/77: 58, 59], says/asks Cosimo.
In other ways, The Baron in the Trees may be viewed as some strange tribute to trees of all kinds. Cosimo develops a special relationship with trees and forests, and rather than viewing wooded areas as places of mystery or danger (see my brief article on forests), Cosimo quickly sees them as his home and a safe haven: “that wish to enter into an elusive element which had urged my brother into the trees, was still now working inside him unsatisfied, making him long for a more intimate link, a relationship which would bind him to each leaf and twig and feather and flutter. It was the love which the hunter has for living things, and which he can only express by aiming his gun at them; Cosimo could not yet recognise it and was trying to satisfy it by probing deeper”[1957/77: 63]. Cosimo soon differentiates intelligently between different trees: “the pines had very close-knit branches, brittle and thick with cones…and the chestnut, with its prickly leaves, husks and bark, and its high branches, seemed a good tree to avoid”; “on a fig tree…he could move about forever…[it] seemed to absorb him, permeate him with its gummy texture and the buzz of hornets”; “the olives, because of their tortuous shapes, were comfortable and easy passages” [1957/77: 68, 69].
A lot of people say how this book reminds them of so many other novels and this maybe because Calvino taps into this stereotypical fairy-tale narrative, having this eccentric, misunderstood and good-hearted hero who can be easily sympathised with – he does not want to live by the rules the society imposes on him and does his own thing. Over time, he manages to redefine the concept of freedom, get love against all odds and grow into one legendary figure. The Baron in the Trees is Peter Pan, The Jungle Book and (maybe even) Robin Hood meet The Swiss Family Robinson.
The problem with The Baron in the Trees is that it is told in a haphazard fashion and whatever “plot” does exist within this story can be predicted many pages in advance. It is as though Calvino got this interesting idea about one man living on the trees, but could not quite decide on his story’s development, so he chooses stereotypes and a narrative that constantly “wanders”, almost hitting dead ends. There are romantic childhood-friends reunions full of melodrama and generic adversaries, including fire (obviously), wild cats and pirates.
The Baron in the Trees is a strange mix of a fairy-tale and not-so-hidden social commentary. The beautifully-told tale of one “self-imposed exile” intrigues if only because, there, one single, quite absurd action has such a far-reaching effect, including breaking social ranks, norms, familial traditions and societal expectations. The author never quite manages to develop his story, though, or provide some special insight into Cosimo. Save for the main idea of one man living permanently on trees, The Baron in the Trees is painfully generic and uninspiring.
I read The Baron in the Trees for the Summer in Other Languages reading challenge organised by Lory over at Entering the Enchanted Castle. This is a challenge to read a certain number of books over the summer in a language other than English or – as is my case with the The Baron – translated from a foreign language.