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)
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…

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