Of all the new authors I started reading in the past ten years, Italo Calvino is, undoubtedly, the most innovative when it comes to serious fiction. His novels never fail to amaze me either by their plots, the use of language, or their message. The Baron in the Trees is my fourth Calvino book, preceded by Invisible Cities, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler..., and Cosmicomics.
While the previous three books were more serious in nature, The Baron in the Trees is unquestionably a whimsical tale. The novel's settings speak, more than anything, to the author's playful mind - following a disagreement with his parents, a stubborn child climbs a tree never to set a foot on the ground again.
That premise alone had me interested. Combine this with my earlier enjoyment of Calvino's prose, and I was hooked.
Unfortunately, this book pales in comparison with the other three books. Calvino is still an amazing writer, but this particular book was a rather 'light read'. The premise of a wealthy Baron spending his life in the treetops while a new century passes beneath him, while Europe is in turmoil and the social fabric undergoes some of the most important changes in Europe's history had a lot of potential. Calvino managed to touch upon some of these subjects, but only superficially. While in his other books he assigns importance to human emotions and the events shaping them, here the link is barely perceptible.
In the center of this novel are our eccentric Baron de Rondo, and his noble lineage. Throw in Napoleon, Voltaire, the French Revolution, the republic of Genoa, tax collectors, Muslim pirates, Jesuits, the Spanish Inquisition, a Jansenist Abbe, the Kozaks, and a war, and you have a plenty of material that not many authors would even attempt to tackle at all, let alone in one book. Calvino, nevertheless, pulls it off.
While the premise of a life in trees may sound too much to be real, Calvino cleverly addresses the difficulties one by one, requiring no suspension of disbelief from his readers. The only complicated issue to resolve remain the subject of love and carnal lust, but even these are addressed tastefully, with a clever play on European politics of that time. Thus, the world Calvino had created for our Baron is, if not believable, at least plausible.
The Baron in the Trees was an enjoyable read. Towards the end, however, I felt as if Calvino rushed the last four chapters to reach a conclusion. Until that point, I did not find anything wrong with this novel, and I suspect that the brusque ending will not bother most readers.
Overall, this book once again showcases what Calvino did best - storytelling. In each book of his, I'm afforded a wonderful window into the world of his imagination. And what imagination he had - unlike any author I have read.