Customer Review

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A kingdom among the foliage, August 1, 2004
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This review is from: The Baron In The Trees (Paperback)
Like most of Italo Calvino's fiction, "The Baron in the Trees" is pure enchantment that charms the reader into an alternate reality with the warmth of subtle humor and the pioneering spirit, similar to Borges's, that desires to explore fascinating new literary territory within the context of world history. In this novel, set in Italy in the late eighteenth century, Calvino tells the story of a young baron named Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo who lives with his eccentric family in a villa on the edge of the town of Ombrosa. One day when he is twelve years old, after an argument with his parents (about having to eat snails), he runs out to the garden and climbs an oak, declaring that he will spend the rest of his life in the trees and vowing never to set foot on the earth again.

Like an arboreal Robinson Crusoe who has chosen his fate, Cosimo determines to make his living in the contiguous group of trees that link his family's garden with those of his neighbors and the forests beyond the town. He travels between trees by climbing and jumping from branch to branch, becoming as nimble and elusive as a squirrel, while he trains himself to survive by hunting wild animals for food and clothing and building a flume to draw drinking water from a waterfall. Even in the trees he engages in activities normally reserved for people on the ground: He continues his formal education, befriends a dachshund that helps him hunt, supports a bumbling brigand's reading habit, and even has an adventure on a pirate ship without touching the deck.

Through his life in the trees, Cosimo becomes notorious throughout Europe and attains a reputation for madness that gradually turns into a strange sort of esteem. He converses with strangers, meets a group of Spanish exiles who also happen to be tree-dwellers, becomes a writer and natural scientist, and wins the hearts of many ladies who provide him with sexual gratification--in the branches, of course. Far from becoming a Rousseauian savage or a hermit, however, he remains quite civilized and gregarious; his palpable wisdom and curious residence ironically earn him more respect than he would get from the people if he were just a normal land-dwelling baron.

Calvino presents the story as a biography narrated by Cosimo's younger brother Biagio, who with affectionate patience describes in vivid detail every aspect of Cosimo's life and is quite hilarious in his explanations of their beleaguered father, militaristic mother, and gruesome, mischievous sister Battista, a "kind of stay-at-home nun." His efforts to explain Cosimo require him to delve into the mind of a political philosopher who aspires to be as influential as Machiavelli: When his father admonishes him that living in trees does not befit a nobleman, Cosimo replies that a true leader is someone who has ideas and communicates them to the people, not a man with an inherited title.

"The Baron in the Trees" may be read as a parable about withdrawing from reality and creating an isolated fantasy world in which to live free from the constraints of society as the ultimate expression of individuality, or as just a wonderful fable about a boy becoming a man on his own terms. One thing is sure: you'll never look at a tree the same way again.
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