"I'm never coming down", he said. And he kept his word.
"The Baron in the Trees" (original title: "Il barone rampante") was written by Italo Calvino in 1957 and forms, alongside The Cloven Viscount and The Nonexistant Knight, the Ancestors trilogy. Some consider it to be his best work; it is certainly among his most entertaining.
Set in the 18th century, the novel follows a style similar to the other two works in this trilogy: magical realism with a splash of historically-inspired elements. It differs from The Cloven Viscount, however, in going past sketched-out settings and form-filling characters, but instead having very carefully crafted 18th century period pieces - Calvino states that this was the "age of the eccentrics" and his characters (both primary and secondary) are direct reflections of this time period. Here time and characters are inseperable - the former creates the latter. Calvino has, in his own words, created a "historical pastiche".
The story is centered on a young man in Italy named Cosimo, next in line for the role of Baron and apparently "living the life" - eating escargot almost daily, occupying a room in a comfortable castle. Such a life does not lend itself to extensive meditation, however, and on 15th of July, 1767, however, he decides he cannot stand it any longer and decides the noble life isn't for him. A conversion to religion? To poverty? No, Cosimo's chosen path to alienation is a distinctintly arboreal route - he decides he is going to spend the rest of the life in the trees.
The book from here on concern itself almost entirely on Cosimo's exploits among branches and vines, narrated through the eyes of his younger brother. Cosimo falls in love with a girl named Viola, meets a group of Spaniards also living in the trees (but living there due to legal troubles, not any sort of personal choice), has his heart broken, meets a thief more thirsty for knowledge than for jewelry, and finally makes a homecoming (though never, ever touching his feet on the ground), after which he makes his final departure, hanging on to the basket of a montgolfiere.
1. Defining oneself by a self-imposed restriction (aka alienation): Calvino states in his preface to Our Ancestors that "(my main narrative theme involves) a person who voluntarily imposes a difficult rule on himself and follows it until its last consequences, for without this rule the person would cease to be true to both him/herself and to others." (translated from Italian to Portuguese to English; mistakes are my own). Nowhere is this theme expressed more clearly than in "The Baron in the Trees". Cosimo has picked out a very limited, solitary life, and this decision comes to be what defines him; when his brother finds himself in France discussing the case of his brother with no less than Rousseau, it is clear that what makes Cosimo unique is not his thoughts or words, but his single self-imposed decision. Through this decision, Cosimo ends up hurting both himself (in limiting his ability to communicate, in being away from his family and witnesses his father and mother's deaths from his leafy perch) and others (he is unable to sustain a relationship with Viola due to his absolute refusal to make contact with the ground.
2. Anthroponymy - Calvino's characters' names are never carelessly chosen, and "The Baron .. " is no exception. In Cosimo we have the echo of the cosmos, which he attempts to reach by placing himself in the trees. It is no coincidence that he makes his final exit hanging on to hot-air balloon; the book is his search of attaining always further distance from the ground - to think on a different level.
3. Enlightenment - The philosophical undercurrent to this novel is clearly the enlightenment; we have Diderot's endorsement of Cosimo's musings, Napoleon's praise of his chosen path, Rousseau's open admiration. The desire to transcend mundane thoughts and enter a higher level of thinking is embodied in Cosimo's own actions, and his treatise on inhabiting foliage - "A Projected Constitution for an Ideal State founded on the tree-tops" - rings with the same register as other works of the time. Further, thief John, who loses his "edge" after gaining an affinity for books (through Cosimo's urging), is a distinctintly Rousseauian character - he becomes mild-mannered and polite after gaining an interest in books. Finally, Cosimo's rejection of the noble routine is clearly mirrored in the enlightenment notion of surpassing the superficial. Through these enlightenment elements, Calvino convincingly takes us back to the mid 1700's.
4. Self-imposed exile vs mandatory exile - When Cosimo meets up with a group of Spaniards ("Desterrado tambien?"- Are you landless too? - they inquire), he meets up with a very peculiar mirror to what he himself has been doing. Though they live in the trees and have adjusted their way accordingly, it was not a choice given to them; they were exiled and told when landing in Italy that if they touched their feet on the ground, trouble would ensue. Cosimo falls in love with one of their number named Ursula - his first intimate relationship with a woman occurs and he is happy enough to write some suitably polyglot poetry:
Il y a un pré where the grass grows toda de oro
Take me away, take me away, che io ci moro!
However, when the time comes for the Spaniards to return to their native land, though Cosimo is offered the patronage of Ursula's father, he declines; he's in it for life. This thematic element can be extended to apply to any situation which some find themselves in through choice and others through force.
Calvino's Ancestors trilogy is my favorite of his works, and within it, "The Baron in the Trees" is my favourite novel. I think it perfectly distills what Calvino was trying to achieve in the other two novels and presents an irrestibly well-crafted notion of the much-romanticized 18th century. Beyond the thematic elements highlighted above, what Calvino creates here is a genuinely entertaining book; magical enough to spark our imagination and well written enough to make us suspend our disbelief.