It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time.
Italo Calvino opens The Baron in the Trees with a flourish. This novel is about a young Italian nobleman — twelve on that fateful day in 1767 — who climbs into the trees as an act of rebellion and never comes down to earth again, not even for an instant. He lives the rest of his full life in the branches: hunting, learning, taking care of his estate, conducting his love affairs and his correspondence with the great minds of the Enlightenment with equal enthusiasm, and finally, at the end of his life, stepping not to earth but to a higher plane.
Like all of Calvino’s works that I have read so far, this novel is a seamless blend of the whimsical — or perhaps I want to say the wildly inventive, since the whimsy is mostly on the surface — and the profound. The first few chapters have a sort of Robinson-Crusoe appeal to them, as we see Cosimo settle himself in the branches, with ingenious solutions to the problems of food, water, hygiene, scholarship, and companionship.
But the farther into the book you read, the clearer it becomes that this is not a simple story about a rebel or an eccentric who spends his time in trees for some reason. The references to Enlightenment philosophers are impossible to ignore. Towards the beginning of the book, Cosimo spends a chapter or so getting to know his kingdom physically: the nature of each tree, the animals, the sounds and scents.
On a fig tree, though, as long as he saw to it that a branch could bear his weight, he could move about forever; Cosimo would stand under the pavilion of leaves, watching the sun appear through the network of twigs and branches, the gradual swell of the green fruit, smelling the scent of flowers budding in the stalks. The fig tree seemed to absorb him, permeate him with its gummy texture and the buzz of hornets; after a little Cosimo would begin to feel he was becoming a fig tree himself, and move away, uneasy.
This, of course, is pure Rousseau, pure Emile: move away from society and educate yourself from Nature. (Voltaire retorted that Rousseau’s books made him feel like “crawling on all fours,” but that he really couldn’t consider it at his age. I adore Voltaire.) Later, there are equally pointed references to Diderot and his collection of encyclopedic knowledge, Montesquieu, and others. Cosimo becomes a deist, and he takes part in his local, small revolution, a faint echo of what is happening in France.
Perhaps the most important part of the book, though, is not what happens, but why and how. How can a man restricted to the branches of trees receive all the most modern — the most revolutionary — ideas? The answer, of course, is through books. Early on, Cosimo takes lessons from his tutor, but he quickly moves beyond his tutor’s competence and begins devouring all the books he can find, novels and nonfiction alike. When he runs across a legendary local bandit, the relationship between them swiftly turns into a friendly book exchange, and their last moment together consists of Cosimo sitting in a tree outside the brigand’s cell window, reading aloud to him the night before his execution. Cosimo’s whole life is guided by books: his ideas of love, his ideas of honor, his ideas of government and nature and what is possible.
In the end, the trees become the connecting metaphor. Books and correspondence connect Cosimo to the entire changing world of the Enlightenment, just as the interlocking branches of the Ombrosa valley connect him to all the places he wishes to travel. The narrator, Cosimo’s brother, paints a dismal picture of the present:
Trees seem almost to have no right here since my brother left them or since men have been swept by this frenzy for the ax. And the species have changed too: no longer are there ilexes, elms, oaks; nowadays Africa, Australia, the Americas, the Indies, reach out roots and branches as far as here.
(This is a particularly lovely irony, because Calvino was born in Cuba.) Yet even when the trees fail, the words remain. Calvino’s words remain. Go and read them:
That mesh of leaves and twigs of fork and froth, minute and endless, with the sky glimpsed only in sudden specks and splinters, perhaps it was only there so that my brother could pass through it with his tomtit’s tread, was embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after page, swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots and gaps, bursting at times into big clear berries, coagulating at others into piles of tiny starry seeds, then twisting away, forking off, surrounding buds of phrases with frameworks of leaves and clouds, then interweaving again, and so running on and on and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless clutter of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.