I’ve been focusing on Italian literature now for many months, so Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (more precisely The Adventures of Pinocchio: The Story of a Puppet, 1883) perhaps should not have offered many surprises. Instead, it hit me like a slap in the face. Never before, not even in Roberto Saviano’s books about the scourge of the Camorra or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s accounts of vicious street kids, had the darker side of Italian literature revealed itself so penetratingly. Pinocchio seemed to shed an illuminating – though not particularly sunny – light on what had otherwise impressed me as a national literature of unusual expressiveness, playfulness, imagination, intimacy, magnanimity, and attention to beauty. One need only think of the generous, attentive narrators of Ariosto’s “Orlando furioso” or Manzoni’s The Betrothed, and even when authors turn their attention to the terrible vicissitudes of life - Verga, for instance, or Belli, or Sciascia - there’s often a comic element that buoys one above life’s wretchedness.
In Pinocchio, however, while some of those sunnier elements and comedy are there, particularly in the expressiveness and play of imagination, the tone starts dark, and the challenges to which the puppet, dreaming of becoming “a real boy,” is put are beyond grim and perhaps even beyond Grimm. Early on, Pinocchio, falling asleep with his feet propped up by the fire, has his feet burned off. Not long after, accosted by a fox and a cat intent on robbing him, he is lynched on an oak tree. And this scene, coming after only 15 of the 36 chapters that make up Collodi’s book, would have been the end of the story had not the readers of the initial, serialized tales of Pinocchio clamored for more and had not Pinocchio, calling to his father like Christ during his execution, been resurrected for more. A note: once one starts down the path paved by Collodi’s religious allusions, one runs the danger of hopping onto runaway metaphors barreling towards going off the rails.
Translator Nicholas Perella’s 79 page essay on Pinocchio included in the bilingual edition I read is thorough to the point of making it nearly impossible for me to say anything about the book that he hasn’t already observed. I’ll just note one aspect upon which Perella only lightly touches - a few potent, fluid dichotomies in the story - which may help explain the book’s enduring popularity as well as some of its attraction for an adult reader looking for an essentially weird reading experience.
First among these, of course, is Pinocchio himself, an amalgam of wood and human spirit (those wanting a ride on a runaway religious metaphor may board now). Born from a father who forms the puppet from a block of organic material much like the Biblical god forming Adam (one wonders if that god was as surprised as Geppetto at the material’s sudden animation), Pinocchio is, throughout the book - or until at the end he discards his wooden frame and ascends into boyhood - a curious composite human-puppet, flesh that is at the same time not flesh, object that is at the same time human, a shape shifter of sorts. Repeatedly he suffers violence visited upon his wooden/human body; repeatedly he pulls himself back together or has help doing it. Collodi’s enjoyment in playing with this material is evident.
Even more fluid a dichotomy is that between life and death. In chapter 15, that final chapter of Collodi’s initial serial, just before Pinocchio dies from hanging, he encounters for the first time the character we’ll later know as The Blue Fairy, described as “a beautiful Little Girl with blue hair and a face as white as a wax image who, with eyes closed and hands crossed over her breast, without moving her lips at all, [says] in a voice that seemed to come from the world beyond: ‘There is nobody in this house. They are all dead,’” then adds, “’I am dead, too.’” Pinocchio is a fantasy with multiple instances of resurrection, in which death, despite the horror associated with it, is ever mutable into new life. Even a giant serpent Pinocchio encounters is alive, then apparently dead, then alive, then (a nice comic element) really dead – from laughing so much that his heart bursts.
A third interesting dichotomy is that between the moralizing thrust of the book – its insistence on obedience – and the delight readers (young readers especially) may find in Pinocchio’s repeated rejection of authority. If ostensibly the book is aimed at inculcating in children a respect for rules and toeing the line, the subtext is clear: little of interest may happen in life if one doesn’t transgress from time to time. I’m speculating, but children may love the book in part because it allows them to go off on fantasies of disobedience under the guise of being instructed to do just the opposite.
I’ll add one last thing: in addition to Pinocchio’s fascinating darker aspects, the book contains some marvelously imaginative passages that make it a rewarding reading experience in general and a rewarding Italian reading experience in particular. There are many examples of the former – rabbit pallbearers, a thousand woodpeckers who peck Pinocchio’s nose back to a manageable size, a coach “the color of air…padded with canary feathers, and lined on the inside with whipped cream and ladyfingers in custard,” drawn by a hundred pairs of white mice and driven by a poodle. One favorite passage that strikes me as particularly Italian is Pinocchio’s fantasy, in chapter 19, of what he’ll do when the gold pieces he has planted in the Field of Miracles come up as coin-laden trees:
Oh, what a wealthy gentlemen I’d become then! I’d get myself a beautiful palace, a thousand little wooden horses and a thousand stables to play with, a cellar full of rosolio cordials and alkermes liqueurs, and a library chock-full of candied fruit, pies, panettoni, almond cakes, and rolled wafers filled with whipped cream.
All those baked and candied marvels! One is transported into a pasticceria. And a child dreaming of alcoholic cordials? Darkness be damned; how can one not want to be in Italy after reading this?
Many thanks to Amanda of the Simpler Pastimes blog for organizing the Pinocchio read-along.