NYRB News


Letter from the Editor

Pinocchio has long been one of my favorite books, so I was overjoyed when, a few years back, Geoffrey Brock, the poet and translator of Roberto Calasso, Umberto Eco, and Cesare Pavese, wrote me saying that if I was in the business of bringing neglected books back to light, why didn’t I consider Pinocchio, a very great book, as all Italians knew, but so taken for granted and, in English, so haphazardly translated, that it had hardly received its due. Brock was eager to translate the book, he said—it would be a labor of love—and I was eager to publish the translation. Here then, a few years down the line, is a beautifully clear and compelling new rendering of Pinocchio, in which this sly, savage, mystifying, funny, poignant, endlessly surprising work of art shines in all its prismatic glory.

It’s an event. For much too long poor Pinocchio has lived in the shadow of Pinocchio the movie star and Pinocchio the ubiquitous tchotchke, characters who have gotten in the way of his telling his own story. In my own case, certainly, Pinocchio‘s Disneyfication acted as a deterrent to reading the actual book. It was around the house in my childhood, but by the time I was old enough to read it I wouldn’t go near it because I already knew all about its bubbly hero who was, for all his scapegrace pretensions, at heart nothing more than an aspiring priss. I was utterly wrong, of course, and sometimes I wish that I had had a chance to get to know Pinocchio earlier, but then again perhaps not doing so was a lucky break. Because when, sometime well into adolescence, on an actual or metaphorical rainy day I picked up the book and read it, it was a revelation.

Pinocchio is a book of fulgurating strangeness, unpredictable from start to finish. As Umberto Eco points out in his introduction to Brock’s translation, Collodi is busy up-ending expectations from the book’s very first lines:

Once upon a time there was….
“A King!” my little readers will say at once.
No children, you’re wrong. Once upon a time there was a block of wood.

The scene that follows is not only unsettling but positively spooky. A carpenter is using his hatchet to trim that piece of wood into a table leg—when, out of nowhere, a not so still small voice cries out: “You’re hurting me!” Pinocchio (who thus oddly exists before he comes into existence) stuns and terrifies the carpenter, known, because of his red and presumably alcoholic nose, as Master Cherry. Master Cherry wonders whether he isn’t just hearing things, and for a moment we wonder too. Throughout the book, a book in which “being real” is a question of paramount importance, Collodi leads us to doubt the reality at hand. Perhaps all this is nothing more than a drunken carpenter’s imaginings? Who knows? But what it is unquestionably is the beginning of a story, and once started the story will have its way.

A wayward way, in the course of which Pinocchio repeatedly runs up against the great non-negotiable realities of the fallen world—work, poverty, pain, evil—even as he is relentlessy propelled forward by the equally imperative freaks and fancies of his unbounded desire. Pinocchio wants what he wants and he wants it now: food, drink, money, fun. Collodi takes him through Chumptrap and the Land of Gulls and other locations posted with big allegorical warning signs, but it is in the nature of Pinocchio—it is his genius—never to get the message. When the Talking Cricket keeps up his shrill repetitive admonitions, Pinocchio simply kills him.

Pinocchio’s world is haunted by poverty—he tells the forbidding puppet master Fire-Eater that Gepetto’s trade is “being poor”—and even more so by violence and death. Gepetto is sure his beloved Pinocchio has died; Pinocchio no less certain that his daddy has. The Fairy with Sky-Blue Hair first appears in the story as a girl in the door of a small white house into which Pinocchio, pursued by murderers, begs to be let in—impossible, she calmly explains, she is dead. Pinocchio himself, captured by his assailants, is then hanged from a tree. The next day, the Fairy, now remarkably alive and adult, has him taken down and tended to. She consults two doctors, a crow and an owl, to determine whether the puppet is dead or alive:

The Crow stepped forward first…., “It is my opinion that the puppet is quite dead. But if by some chance he is not dead, then that would be a sure sign that he is still alive.”
“I regret,” said the Owl, “that I must contradict my illustrious friend and colleague, the Crow. I believe rather that the puppet is still alive. But if by some chance he is still not alive, that would indicate that he is in fact dead.”

The puppet is of course neither alive nor dead, but a fiction, suspended (as marionettes characteristically are) between those states. Pinocchio, a book as mysteriously matter-of-fact as an early morning dream, is a brilliant evocation of the promise and precariousness of childhood, when the world is both new and immemorial and everything is possible and yet, because one is a child, nothing is. For that matter, it could be said to be a book about the promise and precariousness of consciousness itself, displaced as we are between our own unfathomable desires and imaginings and the ultimately unimaginable reality of the world at large.

The ultimate reality, however, is that the story, like all stories—like everything—must come to an end: Pinocchio must become a real boy, e basta! A puppet’s life is too uncertain to go on forever, and real life can only go on outside the book.

Pinocchio is a book of deep intelligence and pure inspiration, a beautiful work that seems, like its hero, almost to have willed itself into existence. (Collodi, though an accomplished man, never accomplished anything remotely equivalent, and in Pinocchio he amusingly depicts a gang of boys bombarding each other with his books). On the cover of this edition is an image from an installation by the artist Tim Rollins and K.O.S., a collective of high school students with whom Rollins works. They read Pinocchio and in response put on a show that, at first sight, consisted of nothing but logs, some scattered on the gallery floor, some propped up against the wall. Viewed at close range, however, each log turned out to contain a pair of wide-open, staring eyes, a tireless avid unblinking spirit confronting the world. It’s a great image of Pinocchio, I think, and a great image, too, of what it means to encounter a great book, also a thing made out of wood with the presence and power of a living thing: it fastens its eyes upon you; it transfixes you with its gaze.

Edwin Frank, Editor
NYRB Classics