The Real Pinocchio

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Last November, the New York Review of Books released Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio under its NYRB Classics imprint. The tale, as reviewed by Tim Parks in the latest issue, is much darker than the Disneyfied version.

After the jump is Parks’ full review. As always, I urge you to subscribe to NYRB; they often review books on Italy and even have an Italian version, La Rivista dei Libri.

By the way, if you’re visiting Tuscany with kids, you may be interested in venturing to the Parco di Pinocchio in the author’s hometown of Collodi (Carlo Lorenzini adopted the town’s name for his nom de plume).

Knock on Wood
By Tim Parks
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)

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.

Initially, then, Collodi seems to have imagined the nose’s growing and shrinking with Pinocchio’s failure or success in distinguishing illusion from reality.

The theme is recurrent, though Collodi never allows us to settle on a single version of what reality might be. Having got his feet wet begging for food in the rain, Pinocchio returns to Geppetto’s house, falls asleep over a lighted brazier, and burns his feet off. Where the brazier was when he ran to the painted fire and cooking pot, we do not know. Freed from jail, Geppetto first threatens and then takes pity on the puppet, makes him new feet, and gives him three pears, the only food he has. It’s crucial throughout the tale that food is scarce and one must learn to like whatever is available. A finicky Pinocchio demands to have his pears peeled; then, still hungry, eats peels and cores too. This is education of a kind. Collodi, it’s worth recalling, was the first of ten children born to parents of the servant class. Six of his siblings died in childhood. He knew hard times.

A full stomach allows Pinocchio the luxury of feeling moved by Geppetto’s sacrifice and he declares his willingness to go to school. Moved by Pinocchio’s being moved, Geppetto rushes out and sells his coat to buy a school primer. Far from gaining economically from his creation, he now has no food and no coat, and very soon no company either. On his way to school Pinocchio hears a drum gathering a crowd for a puppet show and promptly sells his precious primer to buy a ticket. Geppetto won’t see him again until the last pages of the book.

Onstage in the show, Harlequin and Punchinello “traded insults so realistically that they truly appeared to be two thinking beings, two persons of this world.” The audience loves it: illusion that mimics ugly reality. But when the puppets see Pinocchio and recognize him as one of them, they break off the performance, calling him up on stage, hugging and embracing. Despite this “heartwarming spectacle” the spectators are furious that their entertainment has been interrupted and a ferocious puppet master has to intervene to reimpose the real illusion. It was precisely this satirical use of fantasy and paradox that critics disapproved of in Collodi’s work for adults.

Later, as punishment, the wooden Pinocchio is to be burned to roast the puppet master’s mutton. When the big man takes pity on the weeping Pinocchio and decides to burn another marionette instead, Pinocchio shows that he is as capable of a noble impulse as a selfish one: he would rather die himself, he declares, than have someone die in his place. Moved by this generosity, the puppet master forgoes his roasted mutton (but only this once, he warns) and unexpectedly gives Pinocchio five gold coins to take to his poor daddy, Geppetto.

Is it just “childish twaddle,” this constant back and forth between cruelty and compassion, this world where human interaction invariably follows the pattern: selfish impulse leads to pain which prompts shame and good intentions which are quickly forgotten when the next selfish impulse clicks in? Could such a story have relevance today?

His five coins in his pocket, Pinocchio is on his way home when he runs into the Cat and the Fox, the one pretending to be blind and the other to be lame, one supporting the other, one leading the other, in a grotesque charade of solidarity. Unable to distinguish a painted fire from a real one, Pinocchio is unlikely to see through these two practiced con men. “Want to double your money?” the Fox ominously inquires. “Meaning?” the puppet asks.

“Your five gold coins could become two thousand overnight.”

“Overnight!” repeated the Cat.

“But how could they possibly become so much?” asked Pinocchio, his mouth hanging open in astonishment.

Indeed, how could they? The answer is easy: you go to the Land of Gulls and bury your cash in the Field of Miracles. With the confident air of a financial adviser from the Wall Street of a year ago, the Fox explains his Madoff mathematics:

You can count it out on your fingers. Let’s say that each coin grows into a bunch of five hundred coins—multiply five hundred by five, and the next morning you’d have two thousand five hundred shiny new coins.

Like many a modern investor, Pinocchio falls for it. He spends one of his coins treating the swindlers to dinner, only to find they have disappeared when, at midnight, the threesome was supposed to set out for the Land of Gulls. Accosted in the dark by two murderers draped in sacks, Pinocchio fails to recognize his fellow diners, but does manage to hide his coins in his mouth. Unable to prise it open, the Cat and Fox hang the puppet on a tree, planning to return for the cash the following morning. “Oh, if only you were here, Daddy!” calls Pinocchio, in what sounds suspiciously like an allusion to the Crucifixion. Then:

His eyes closed, his mouth opened, his legs straightened, and then, after a tremendous shudder, he went completely limp.

This is where Collodi wanted to bow out, with the puppet reduced to an inanimate marionette dangling from a string: reality. But it was too brazenly pessimistic; there were too many young readers anxious to hear more, and too many loose ends to tie up. In particular, shortly before the murderers caught up with Pinocchio, a new character had been introduced whose spirit would preside over the remainder of the tale when Collodi resumed.

Running for his life, the puppet had seen a small house gleaming whitely in the dark; his banging on the door brings a girl with “sky-blue hair,” as Brock’s translation has it, to the window, “her face white as a waxen image.” Evidently the place is magical, sacred perhaps; clearly there are allusions to the Madonna, last resort of those in need, and ever associated with the color blue. But the girl dashes Pinocchio’s hopes of salvation. No one will open the door, she says, because everyone in the house is dead, herself included: in fact, she is waiting for her coffin to arrive. This is the figure Disney presents in the adaptation’s opening scene as the entirely reassuring Blue Fairy, embodiment of a world where all endings are happy.

One of the thorniest problems for those intent on constructing an Italian national identity was the fact that the Catholic Church had opposed unification, papal armies had fought against it, and the faithful were instructed not to collaborate with the new state and in particular not to vote in elections. But who were the Italians if not Catholics? One of the many ways in which successive governments sought to bridge the gap was by promoting Alessandro Manzoni’s determinedly Catholic novel The Betrothed ( I Promessi Sposi ; 1834) as the great model of Italian narrative. More intriguingly, in the last decades of the century, artists eager to establish a specifically Italian school of painting would seek to appropriate Catholic iconography to secular culture. In Giovanni Segantini’s Angel of Life ( Angelo della vita; 1894), for example, an idealized mother and child sit airily robed in the crook of a gnarled tree whose gothic branches blacken as they reach into a soft glow of pale blue sky.

Collodi could hardly have been indifferent to the issue. He had been educated for the priesthood before joining the cause of the anticlerical Risorgimento liberals. Rather than the pious and respectful appropriations of painters like Segantini, his own vague allusions to Catholic images—particularly the elusive blue-haired fairy— are deeply ambiguous, as though a nostalgia for some comforting metaphysics was constantly being dissolved in mockery. It is curious that while Italy’s best-known adult novel, The Betrothed, is Catholic and optimistic, its most-loved children’s work dramatizes an irreverent and skeptical pessimism. Children perhaps have a thicker skin than their parents.

The story resumes with three resurrections. The blue-haired fairy is inexplicably alive and magically powerful. Why then did she not help the puppet earlier? She has Pinocchio taken down from his tree and brought to her house where he is attended by three marvelously pompous doctors, one of whom is the Talking Cricket. His denunciation of the puppet is so ferocious that Pinocchio bursts into tears and can thus be pronounced alive. Later, when the puppet lies to the fairy about where he has put his money, she causes his nose to grow as punishment. From this moment on the distinction between reality and illusion focuses more sharply on questions of truth and falsehood, responsibility and denial.

Pinocchio’s vicissitudes are many. Determined to reform, every time he sets out in the world he is tempted and succumbs. Tricked again by the Cat and the Fox, he buries his money in the Field of Miracles, loses it, reports the swindlers to the police, and, in a typically paradoxical twist, is jailed himself for his ingenuousness. Released, he returns to the fairy’s house to find a gravestone announcing that she has died of grief because she had been “abandoned by her little brother Pinocchio.” Soon afterward she is alive again, though strangely relocated in town and much aged, to the point that she now takes on the role of mother, guardian, and guide.

These dreamlike shifts of identity tease the reader to construct some interpretation, but without offering a consistent reading. The mixture of portentously symbolic encounters (Pinocchio finding his path blocked by a huge serpent or being swallowed by a huge fish) with more mundane situations (getting a foot caught in an animal trap or being attacked by schoolmates)simply increases the sense of enigma. In one beautifully surreal scene reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, a repentant Pinocchio returns at night to the fairy’s door, but his knock is answered from a fourth-floor window by a snail who tells him the fairy is sleeping and cannot be disturbed. It then takes the snail nine hours to get downstairs and open up, during which time Pinocchio kicks the door so hard his foot goes through and gets trapped. It’s a charmingly light dramatization of frustration and penance.

Startled to find the blue fairy aged, Pinocchio for the first time expresses a desire to grow up. To do that he must cease to be a puppet, the fairy declares; he must become “real” or, as the Italian has it, vero, true. In short, he must be obedient and go to school.

“Reality,” then, has to do with an assumption of responsibility. But it is so hard to want this! After months of good behavior, on the brink of becoming “real,” Pinocchio falls for the idea of a place where every day is play day, and heads for Toyland, a decision that can only lead to disaster and donkey’s ears. Collodi, we recall, was a man who frequently fell in love and never married, or ever gave up his drinking, smoking, and gambling.

But finally Pinocchio does get there. The turning point comes when, transformed into a donkey, he is performing in a circus and spies the fairy in the audience. His joy at seeing her, then anguish as she witnesses his humiliation, is intense. For all the book’s ambiguities, one thing is clear: the mother figure who hopes and suffers for her son is a far more powerful educator than any creaking pedagogue and a more recognizably unifying Italian archetype.

Recovering his puppet form, Pinocchio rescues Geppetto from the belly of the great fish, accepts humble work to feed him, and when he hears that the fairy is sick in a poorhouse gives all his savings to help her. “Imagine his amazement,” Collodi enthuses, when waking the following morning he has become “a boy like other boys.” The straw hut he and Geppetto live in is transformed into a solid house. There is no painted fire. Rather Geppetto is “designing a beautiful picture frame,” as if to separate illusion and reality once and for all.

Some critics have suggested that the formula “a boy like other boys” (or “like all the others” as the Italian puts it) is double-edged: accepting responsibility, Pinocchio sacrifices freedom and individuality for the dubious benefits of conformity. In her informative afterword to the new edition, Rebecca West, a professor of Italian and cinema at the University of Chicago, appears to assent. Yet Pinocchio, made from a log like other logs (the Italian uses the same formula at the beginning of the book), never displays anything so sophisticated as individuality or enjoys any freedom. He is merely a victim of internal whim and external manipulation. “How funny I was, when I was a puppet!” the newly real, responsible Pinocchio remarks, and the Italian buffo suggests “amusing, ridiculous, endearing.”

How exactly the miraculous transformation of growing up has come about, we can’t quite be sure. An educator who savored enigmas rather than dictating solutions, Collodi in 1886 was probably not unhappy to find himself classified thus in Giuseppe Mantica’s fanciful Zoology of Contemporary Literature:

Taenia solium—commonly known as the solitary worm. He fastens on to the tender intestines of young children but does them neither harm nor good.

Photo by Carl Ottersen

Last updated on May 17th, 2023

Post first published on April 18, 2009

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