Baron in the Trees

By Italo Calvino
Goodreads Rating: 4.06
GL Rating: 5.5

I hadn’t read any of Calvino’s work (I know, sad), and The Baron in the Trees’ premise intrigued me. Overall I found it to be something of a disappointment, but it’s a pretty accomplished and intermittently great disappointment. Baron would be a good read if you’re up for something that feels light but also, at its best, brims with ideas and masterful story-telling.

The first half of the book featured some truly top-shelf writing. Calvino has a capacity to consistently wrong-foot the reader’s expectations, and to do so in a way that lends weight and depth to the characters and themes.

The Baron’s life among the trees conjures many referents; the story frames the Baron at points as a Christ figure. He is simultaneously of the world and rejects it. At one point he is pinned to a tree trunk. Calvino packs many ideas into a somewhat goofy premise. The Baron’s arboreal meanderings are at once Edenic, a childish act of rebellion, psychically regressive, and a pre-cursor to political movements that took root a decade later. In terms of its associations, the story brought Tarzan to mind, and The Tin Drum as well, with its diminutive, tantrum-prone protagonist and his idiosyncratic brand of sonic destruction. Last, and probably least, the Baron flitting through the region entirely in the canopy reminded of a spider in a web.

What’s even more remarkable about the novel’s thematic multiplicity is that it largely reads like a children’s fairy-tale.

The final third of the book, or maybe the second half, sees the writing fall off of a cliff, or out of a tree heh heh heh.

Early on, the Baron’s relationship with his mother is beautifully rendered. Aside from the mother, however, Calvino struggles with female characters. The Baron’s relationship with Viola, his main love interest, veers from flat, to irritating, to contrived; and this is in some ways the most important relationship in the story.

Baron has picaresque elements; some of the characters are developed throughout the novel, while others pop up and then are ejected from orbit. Elements of the plot feel tangential, which dampens the drama, although I suspect that was by design. You have the sense at points that some of the characters don’t mean much to Calvino, and his treatment of them is flippant.

The third short-coming in Baron is that trees themselves are not more of a presence in the narrative. Obviously the entire story takes place in the trees, so they are a presence, but they are not developed as they could have been. There is a feint in this direction early on in the book, but Baron could have been a much more profound novel if Calvino fleshed out this aspect of the book in more detail.