Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (1883, trans. Geoffrey Beck 2009) 160 pages
Pinocchio, like a lot of classic children’s literature, is deeply weird and dark. I didn’t read it at all as a child, despite seeing the Disney cartoon which is very different. I picked it up as an adult because its published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics, and it turned out to be an intriguing read.
The basic premise I think everyone knows: a wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, misbehaves and every lie he tells has a very obvious effect on his physiognomy.
“ ‘Lies, my boy, are immediately recognizable, for there are two kinds: lies that have short legs and lies that have long noses. Yours happen to be the long-nosed variety.’
Pinocchio, wanting to hide his face in shame, tried to run from the room – but he couldn’t. His nose was so long that it wouldn’t fit through the doorway.”
Pinocchio isn’t very likeable. He’s totally idle and only interested in himself.
“ ‘Of all the trades in the world, there’s only one that really suits me.’
‘And what trade would that be?’
‘That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.’
‘For your information,’ said the Talking Cricket, with his usual calm, ‘everyone who plies that trade ends up either in a poorhouse or a prison.’
‘Watch out, you doom-and-gloom Cricket! If I snap, you’ll be sorry!’”
Pinocchio does snap, and kills the Cricket stone dead. A short-lived relationship with an insect, who is nothing like the top hat and frock coat wearing, enduring friend of the cartoon.
The story is episodic, with Pinocchio going on several adventures, invariably taking the wrong decision, and failing to learn from his mistakes. It has the feel of folk tales rather than fairy tales, being grounded in an earthy reality of poverty and banditry, even when the bandits are a fox and cat double act. Pinocchio is always appealing even though he is selfish and unheeding, but there is never any sentimentality in the tale.
However, there is the strong didactic element associated with fairy tales, and Pinocchio is constantly lectured, by the cricket, by adults, and by the fairy with sky blue hair who crops up in various guises.
“ ‘Dear boy,’ said the Fairy, ‘people who talk that way almost always end up either in a prison or a poorhouse. For your information, everyone, whether they’re born rich or poor, is obliged to do something – to keep busy, to work. Woe to anyone who yields to idleness! Idleness is a dreadful disease and must be treated at once, starting in childhood. If not, it will be too late by the time we grow up.’”
Pinocchio does eventually learn and does become a real boy, but there’s something irrepressible about him. The feeling at the end is not of conservative integration where all is right with the world, but rather that the subversive elements that have been present all along are still there, waiting to spill out at any minute.
It’s a tale that can be enjoyed by children and adults. My edition included contributions from intellectual heavyweights to say the least: an Introduction by Umberto Eco, an Afterword by Rebecca West and a quote on the back by Italo Calvino. This shows how Pinocchio has been so widely recognised and why it endures; deceptively simple, hiding its complexities in an engaging children’s tale, it can be read differently each time.
I really didn’t like the cover of the NYRB Classics edition, finding it creepy, but it captures the unsettling quality of the tale of an animated puppet perfectly: