The Baron in the Trees

I picked this book as the Classic Comic Novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Not as straightforward humorous as a P.G. Wodehouse book, or identified as a Comic Classic, I feel it fits in this category, as the premises of the book and much of its occurrences, were rich in humor.

The novel is set in Italy, in the eighteen hundreds. Cosimo, one of two sons of Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò, decides to escape his suffocating family life by climbing a tree near his house. Cosimo declares his intention never to come down again. 

I found these notes on the characters, and without revealing the whole novel, it surely gives you a nice preview of what you’d find in it.

Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò
Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, who is twelve years old at the narrative’s outset. He is the eldest son in the Piovasco family and successor as baron of the Ombrosa estate. Cosimo is energetic and determined, an idealist who insists on acting on his principles. the central figure in the story, he sets the main action going when he refuses to eat a meal of snails prepared by his sister. Sent from the table, he climbs into a holm oak on his family’s estate and vows never to descend from the trees. Cosimo eventually develops instincts and senses different from other humans as a result of living in the wild and having to be ever watchful and alert. This vigilance becomes “his natural state, as if his eyes had to embrace a horizon wide enough to understand all.” Despite his arboreal life, he becomes studious and well read in the philosophy of the Enlightenment; as a reader as well as a tree dweller, he acquires, virtually and literally, a bird’s-eye view of his era.

Biaggio Piovasco di Rondò
Biaggio Piovasco di Rondò, eight years old at the outset of the action. He narrates the tales of Cosimo’s extraordinary life. Though at first regarded by Cosimo as weak because of his failure to resist their father, Biaggio is a close friend and confidant to Cosimo. Biaggio takes his brother food and supplies when needed and keeps Cosimo informed of events that Cosimo cannot observe. Throughout the narrative, Biaggio maintains an attitude of wonder and awe at his brother’s exploits.

All of the characters in Calvino’s novel are eccentric. The plainest and most conventional of them is Biaggio, the narrator. Biaggio profits handsomely from his brother Cosimo’s life in the trees, for he becomes heir to the estate; nevertheless, Biaggio clearly regrets his own comparatively plain life, though he recognizes that he never would have been able to make a similar choice. Biaggio is, like many, successful by the world’s standards but conscious of what might have been.

I also found a short review that hits the mark and says it better than I could:

A marvelous, bizarre, witty, and free-swinging fantasy concerning Cosimo, the eldest son of a noble family, who, in a moment of rebellion, vows to live out his life up in the trees-and does so. This habitat is by no means so limiting as it might seem. Branchy freeways connect him with orchards, villa gardens, and dense forests; and if height gives him a different viewpoint it is only the better to expound it. A will freed, except for the self-imposed rule that he is never to touch the ground, his domestic arrangements rival those of the Swiss Family Robinson, Tarzan and Mowgli; but his meanings and style are closer to those of Cervantes and Voltaire. Cosimo is not concerned with making bargains with nature or intellect, but in becoming both, which he does through a series of picaresque, Dali-esque adventures, fighting wolves, seducing women into the treetops, and lecturing the villagers. Eventually he becomes a kind of antique god or hero and achieves an appropriate apotheosis- for Cosimo is life, expanded to its limits. A book for very special tastes.

Enough cutting and pasting, I’m going to talk about magic realism, a topic that’s been occupying my thoughts lately.

Ooops, not done with cutting and pasting. This is Wikipedia’s definition:

Magical realismmagic realism, or marvelous realism is a style of fiction that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements. It is sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fables, myths, and allegory. “Magical realism”, perhaps the most common term, often refers to fiction and literature in particular, with magic or the supernatural presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting.

After reading Midnight’s Children, this title, and having read several of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels, I want to understand why they all employ magical realism as described in that last sentence, when the magical or supernatural is presented in a mundane setting. I’m sure that XX and XXI century authors chose this as a way of presenting a more encompassing reality that the one that falls under our five senses. It’s possibly their way to break with the constrictions that science, by its power and preeminence in recent decades, has afflicted into the arts. To these authors, the inclusion of non rationally explainable experiences, perceptions, and elements, I believe comes as a more faithful (and somehow ‘realistic’) way of presenting life and people to us. The limits between our imagination and our beliefs in certain myths, legends, or certain religious beliefs, make their incursion side to side with what we all accept as ‘real’.

The question is, do these authors communicate with us?, why yes or why not?, where is that bridge, or how do we achieve that reading state of mind that make us traverse from the elements we recognize, -the ones present in the more traditional novel-, ‘realistic’ in form and content, to these bizarre and fantastical elements of some of these more contemporary novels? How can we stay comfortable while reading, or at least not feel we are being teared savagely from the flow of the plot by the disbelief and awkwardness this so called magic realism causes on us?

Honestly, I don’t know in full, but I suspect that, if we read a magic realistic novel in our culture and language, close to who we are in a deep sense; if the world of the novel is also ‘our world’ in a primeval way, I know we have a higher chance of not bolting and feeling the novel as a faithful rendition of events and not an unbelievable and nonsensical relation of events.

All this was prompted when my friend from Honduras read One Hundred Years of Solitude for a second time. She is now in her forties, and has more reading miles. She told me how the book gave her a new understanding of the Latin American culture she’s from. The names repetition, -where all people seem to be Buendías, and one doesn’t know if we are talking about grandfather, father, or son-, helps to express the circularity of the countries which don’t seem to ‘advance’, but which suffer the same horrors over and over. The unbelievable ages of some of the characters, and supernatural abilities, may be simply the myths and fables we attach to some in our communities, the fame that outlives the death of the person.

Whenever I read Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn, -without them being magical realistic authors-, I always find they present reality in such a hyperbolic way, that I also wonder how I believe all they speak about and take it face value. In this case, reality is so complex and effervescent that, if we stop to think about it, we must wonder if they are, after all, describing reality in a ‘realistic’ manner. Their realism is the antithesis to magic realism. It’s when legends, myths, or magic, are described strictly in realistic terms. (I just made this up, but it seems to fit what I get when I read these type of authors).

Yuri Mackasov , the translator of The Grey House, talks about the duality the book presents. Petrosyan serves us this duality from the beginning, but the borders blur. Mackasov talked about the book following a reality as we get from nuclear physics. You can read about it here. I leave you two quotes on this duality:

I think that from the very start I have accepted the House’s dual nature, and never really thought to explain it within either strictly realistic or strictly magical framework. The notion of a “crack between the worlds”, a place in our world where the boundary separating it from the mysterious is weakened as compared to the rest of it seems natural; as Icelanders respect their “hidden folk”, as Japanese and Mexicans celebrate “days of the dead”, so is the House a gateway to a different place (two places, if you count the Forest).

– it is, of course, the thing that strikes most, if not all careful readers: how Mariam managed to leave the text in that precarious superposition of realistic and magical (again, to quote Marquez, “destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic”), and then letting us choose our own level of engagement with the fantastical elements – while remaining internally consistent. I’m sorry if this is “talking shop”, but I was a nuclear physicist before I became a software engineer (and only then a translator), and this is exactly how our world works – at the quantum level, that is, where the Schrödinger’s cat is at the same time dead and alive. In addition to the Hesse’s three levels, while reading the House we can be Black, or Smoker, or Ralph, or even Tabaqui, and it’ll work just fine, until we would want to switch and after we do.

Amazing how many of Rushdie’s readers of Midnight’s Children, who have as much knowledge as guts perception of the world presented in the book, don’t find the book to be other than a chunk of reality. Those of us who are more outsiders, still find it confusing, or in the least, strange. That may or may not detract from our enjoyment of the book. I did enjoy it, and that is what counts to me, -though conscious I am of having missed lots in it-.

Magic realism for Márquez and Rushdie, may be the perfect vessel to convey the hyperbolic nature of people and cultures where there’s excess, and an overwhelming sensory bombs thrown at you every second. It’s also a fine tool to widen reality to the realm of our dreams, and of the poetic.

Maybe this is the reason why I had no problem with The Baron in the Trees. I must say that it’s not that steeped into magic realism. It’s more a fantastical scenario, that of Cosimo’s life in the trees, which ends up being more real than the life lived on the land.

What do you all think about this fascinating topic?

10 thoughts on “The Baron in the Trees

  1. Magic realism is disorientating. Unlike fantasy it creates ambiguity, raises doubts about whether what you’re being presented with has substance.

    For me there has to be an anchor in all of it—a character or characters one can empathise or identify with, a community with an integrity that is threatened or questioned, an environment (built or otherwise) that one wants to feel safe in or at least remain there in spirit.

    Any magic realist novel that is alienating—the odd few Carlos Luiz Zafón titles I’ve read have been like that—I find deeply unsatisfying.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agree, Chris, there has to be an anchor. I have not read Zafón, but for what you describe, I won’t like it. My experience with magic realism is through Márquez, Calvino, Rushdie, Marian Petrosyan, Gunter Grass, -maybe more I’m missing-, but the common denominator of all these authors and their magic realistic books, -which are also not all they write-, is that they all have that anchor, and I do get that sense of realism more than an odd magic. Oh, there’s two books that could be said to be examples of this, which some people call more science fiction, ‘Slaughter House Five’, and ‘Never Let Me Go’, but the fantastic elements are present in lesser weight, or they are more science fiction and utopia like. Maybe there’s no use in putting labels, I was just trying to understand why authors feel compelled to cross the boundaries of what we understand by plausible, or that abides with the laws of nature, or scientific laws that govern the world.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Are you on Goodreads, Chris? My friends who stop by here, or are just there, such as Ruthiella, my Spaniard friend Maria, etc., don’t rate Zafón very highly. I’m thinking he may be second rate reading, and frankly, we all aspire to read the best here. (Nothing wrong with something lighter, but not this, I don’t think so). You know, magic realism in the hands of a master will not be the same as in the hands of a trope type, pastiche like writer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I only use Goodreads to catalogue books I’ve read and reviewed, to respond to the odd comment on a review, and keep a track of how I’m doing on the Reading Challenge. I tend to mostly rely on blogging where books and social media are concerned!

        Other than Ruiz Zafón I’ve only sampled one each of Rushdie, García Márquez and Calvino (though I’ve read a fair chunk of his collection of Italian folktales) so I’m not really as au fait with magic realism as I ought to be. I hope to return to Ishiguro soon, however. Good to know that these are authors with that all-important anchor, as you describe it!

        Liked by 1 person

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