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Knock on Wood

The Adventures of Pinocchio

by Carlo Collodi, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by Umberto Eco and an afterword by Rebecca West
New York Review Books, 189 pp., $14.00 (paper)
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Pinocchio and the Fairy; illustration by Attilio Mussino from the 1911 edition of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio

A voice yells from within a pine log, “Don’t hit me too hard!” The carpenter is astonished, his axe stayed. When they come unexpected, life and language are unsettling.

Brought into being by blows, the talking log proceeds to start a fight: the carpenter’s friend Geppetto has arrived to ask for a piece of wood and the voice mocks his yellow wig; Geppetto imagines he is being insulted by his friend and in a moment the two are on the floor, scratching, biting, and thumping. Consigned to Geppetto, the lively log contrives to bang his shins and provoke a second misunderstanding and a second fight before it is taken away.

Old Geppetto is something of an artist. His house is bare, but he has painted bright flames in the fireplace and a merrily boiling pot above them; when reality is hard, illusion may offer consolation. Now Geppetto is about to embark on a much greater act of creation: he will fashion a traveling companion who can “dance and fence, and do flips,” so that together the two can earn a “crust of bread” and a “cup of wine.” He’s thinking of company and economic advantage. But no sooner has Pinocchio been carved from his living log than he is snatching off Geppetto’s wig, revealing the reality of his maker’s baldness. Taught to walk, he runs off. When Geppetto catches up and starts to give the puppet a fierce shaking, he is arrested for assault and jailed. The artist has lost control of his creation. Raw vitality with no inhibitions, Pinocchio is freed into a world of hot tempers, vanity, ignorance, and appetite; a violent tussle is never far off.

Himself a creative spirit in hard times, the satirical journalist, playwright, and novelist Carlo Collodi began writing Pinocchio in 1881. He was fifty-five, disillusioned, pessimistic, combative. A Florentine through and through, in 1848 and 1859 he had volunteered to fight in two unsuccessful revolutionary wars that sought to replace a fragmented Italy dominated by foreign powers with a unified, self-governing state. In the 1860s that goal was chaotically and unexpectedly achieved, albeit under the austere Piedmontese monarchy. Like many who had supported the cause, Collodi was dissatisfied with the consequences. Politically united, Italy remained culturally divided and backward, a country in need, as the poet Leopardi had once said, of some collective “illusion” that might give its people a sense of identity. “Now we have made Italy, we must make the Italians,” the patriot Massimo D’Azeglio famously declared. Unfortunately, government policies based on national pride led to tariff wars and further impoverishment, provoking regional resentment and unrest. Some went hungry. Many predicted the imminent breakup of the country.

In this uncertain environment one crucial instrument of unity and stability was the newly introduced, compulsory education system. In 1868 Collodi was invited by the Ministry of Education to contribute to a national dictionary: Italians must speak and spell in the same way. In 1875 a Florentine publisher specializing in children’s literature gave him the job of translating Perrault’s fables from the French; the best works of foreign literature were to be published in a modern, standardized Italian. After completing this translation, Collodi was encouraged to write for children himself: first the stories of a boy, Giannettino, who travels through Italy from north to south (“to give kids half an idea of their new and glorious country, about which they know absolutely nothing”), then the tale of Minuzzolo, a boy who makes fun of all attempts to teach him to be good. Later, Collodi would go on to write some highly successful math, grammar, and geography textbooks.

In short, the rebel and satirist had been drawn into the huge task of educating modern Italians. He was aware that it was not a project children would rejoice in. Nor was his approach conventional. In 1883 the Ministry of Education would reject the tales of Giannettino and Minuzzolo as standard texts for elementary schools because they were “so humorously frivolous as to detract from the seriousness of teaching.” In general, Collodi’s writing is galvanized by the contradiction that while education is understood to be essential, it is presented as generally dull and often futile, if only because human nature is so intractable. Despite being educated in a seminary, Collodi himself was a drinker, smoker, gambler, and womanizer.

The success of his children’s books was welcome but Collodi’s ambition had been to write adult literature. Here, however, his work was criticized for failing to deliver realistic character and incident, and for its underlying pessimism about both the new Italy and human nature in general. Following Zola’s lead in France, the fashion of the day was verismo, a dour realism justified by its commitment to social progress. Out of step with the times, Collodi had a flair for the surreal and absurd that looked back to Sterne and forward to Pirandello; in the 1880s such an approach was considered appropriate only in children’s literature. Thus Collodi frequently found himself invited to work in a genre he sometimes felt was below him. When his publisher insisted he contribute to a new children’s weekly, Giornale per i bambini, he reluctantly delivered the first installment of “The Story of a Puppet,” with a letter remarking: “Here’s some childish twaddle, do what you want with it; but assuming you print, you’d better pay me well if you want to see any more.”

The story would later be retitled The Adventures of Pinocchio. Collodi did not grow more fond of it. A third of the way into the book we now have, he left Pinocchio hanging by the neck from a tree, having apparently put a gruesome end to both the puppet and his tale. It took the magazine four months to convince him to press on. Later, he was so weary with the project that he took another six-month break. Very likely it was this irritation at writing in a genre he thought secondary that accounts for the story’s extraordinary mood swings and unusually cavalier approach to such matters as narrative consistency. Ironically, these are the very qualities that give Pinocchio its extraordinary vitality, qualities that come across in the new translation by Geoffrey Brock. Like Geppetto, Collodi had casually started something that took on a life of its own.

The celebrated and sugary Disney film adaptation (1940), by which most people outside Italy have come to know Pinocchio’s story, announces itself as an example of how, if sincerely desired, even the greatest of wishes can come true: a reassuring message. Nothing could be further from the acid spirit of Collodi’s “Story of a Puppet.” The question with a puppet is: Who will manipulate him? When the puppet turns out to have a stubborn and stupid will of his own, that question becomes: Whom will he allow himself to be manipulated by?

Having got Geppetto arrested, Pinocchio rushes home, only to experience a shock like the one he earlier gave the carpenter: a voice speaks from nowhere: “Cree, cree, cree.” It is the Talking Cricket (Disney’s Jiminy Cricket) who has “lived in this room for more than a hundred years.” Revealing himself on the wall, the officious insect proceeds to give Pinocchio some hundred-year-old advice: “Woe to any little boy who rebels against his parents and turns his back on his father’s house!” A surprisingly well-informed Pinocchio is having none of it: he’s off, he declares,

because if I hang around the same thing that happens to all the other kids will happen to me, too: I’ll be sent to school, and I’ll be expected to study whether I like it or not….

When the cricket warns that this attitude can only lead to disaster, “Pinocchio jumped up in a rage, grabbed a wooden mallet from the workbench, and flung it at the Talking Cricket.” Far from crooning his way through the puppet’s many adventures with blue top hat, red umbrella, and yellow dancing shoes, the creature dies at once, splattered on the wall. It is typical of Collodi that while the rest of the book will show just how right the cricket was, the author nevertheless seems to take as much delight as any child in having this wearisome pedagogue obliterated with such panache. That said, he then has fun resurrecting the insect on two or three occasions to exchange insults with his killer.

Whether the cricket is dead or alive, traditional wisdom is evidently defunct, a tedious chirp no one has time for. Who then will harness the mad vitality of this improbably artificial, newly created Italian? Rather than the uplifting account of a noble wish come true, Collodi’s tale records the thoughtless exuberance of a character whose only talent lies in trading insults and whose inevitable destiny is to be exploited at every turn. The writer’s achievement here was to tap into the zany spirit of Tuscan humor to deliver a Pinocchio who swings alarmingly between lies and candor, generous sentiment and cruel mockery, good intentions and zero staying power. Geoffrey Brock’s accomplishment in his excellent new translation is to get that spirit across in English, albeit and inevitably without the intense flash of recognition one has on reading the original Italian; for Pinocchio does indeed capture a perplexing waywardness that one experiences every day in Italy.

In this regard it’s worth comparing the opening scenes of Disney’s animated film, in which, bright as a new toy, the cute and evidently harmless Pinocchio dances and sings in an oddly Alpine, cuckoo-clock world—not a sniff of Italy about it—charmingly supported by pussycat and goldfish, to the 2002 acted film adaptation by the Italian (and Tuscan) comic Roberto Benigni. Benigni can irritate with his facile high spirits and boundless self-regard, but they are indispensable qualities for this part. His Pinocchio leaps from the artist’s bench into frenetic action, bouncing off the walls, chasing up and down ladders, tripping, skipping, slipping, and simply terrorizing the bewildered Geppetto in a whirlwind of activity accompanied by manic logorrhea. The film may not have been a box-office success, but Benigni convincingly captures the anarchic energy of the original. Plus…the actor is blessed, or cursed, with a long, pointed nose.

Pinocchio, we are told, had “a prodigiously long nose, one that seemed specially designed to be easily seized by policemen.” Again and again, it is the puppet’s nose, emblematic perhaps of his unschooled vitality, that leads to Pinocchio’s being caught out and mortified. And of course it’s a nose famous for growing longer and shorter. The first time this happens, however, it is not because the puppet has told a lie. Having hammered the Talking Cricket to the wall, Pinocchio suddenly discovers a ravenous hunger. So…

Poor Pinocchio ran quickly toward the pot that was boiling on the fire and reached out to remove the lid, to see what was inside—but the pot was painted on the wall.

Just imagine how he felt. His nose, which was already long, grew at least four inches longer.

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