In my remarks a few weeks ago about my visit to the glorious Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, I mentioned that the grounds contain a cemetery in which are buried several prominent Italians from the second half of the nineteenth century to the present day, among them Carlo Collodi, author of "Pinocchio." It wasn't until today that I realized that Collodi wasn't just Italian but in fact a lifelong Florentine, making "Pinocchio" fair game. (Reminder: I'm only reading books about or set in Florence or by Florentine authors.) Now if you get the impression, because I read a book about Shakespeare (who, though he set 13 of his 37 plays entirely or in part in Italy, never so much as referred once to Florence!) and seem eager to read a children's book, that my enthusiasm for Dante might be waning - well, you wouldn't be far from the truth. Maybe if you all pray hard enough for me, I'll get out of "Purgatory" quicker!
In my defense, I've never read "Pinocchio" before, so when I saw a brand new translation, just out this month, by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by no less than Umberto ("The Name of the Rose," "Foucault's Pendulum") Eco himself, how was I supposed to resist? Yes, it may be just a children's story (if you believe there is such a thing) but the new (alas, unillustrated) translation's 160 pages long, followed by another 25 pages of scholarly evaluation by Rebecca West! So I wasn't exactly taking the afternoon off to read it. And even if I was - hey, I'm on sabbatical!
In his introduction, Eco recalls the "discomfort" he and his fellow Italian friends experienced when watching for the first time Walt Disney's version of the story they had grown up with. ("Pinocchio" was first published serially between 1883 and 1885, making him an exact contemporary of "Huckleberry Finn," which came out in late 1884.) I came to the original having grown up with the adaptation - but my reaction was the same: discomfort. Collodi's creation is a good deal less cuddly than Disney's. He's born kicking: no sooner does Geppetto (Collodi's spelling) finish carving the feet than he gets kicked in the nose by one of them, and his suffering at the hands of his ungrateful creation doesn't stop there. (Comparisons to "Frankenstein" have been made on this point.) There is an unnamed talking cricket, but he's not the narrator. He tells Pinocchio upon first meeting him that he's been living in Geppetto's room for more than a hundred years. Two pages later, the enraged puppet flings a wooden mallet at him, squashing the poor bug to death! (Collodi offers an excuse, "Perhaps he didn't mean to hit him at all," but Pinocchio expresses no remorse.) There's no Blue Fairy but rather a fairy with sky-blue hair, who doesn't enter the story until it's nearly half over. In the early days of her relationship with the puppet, he considers her his sister; later, he calls her "mother." The first pages were so different in incident and tone, so much starker and darker, that I was surprised by the end to see how much Disney had actually managed to retain: he got the Fox and Cat right, and the transformation of the boys (and puppet) into donkeys, and improved on the episode in the whale (in the book, a shark).
I'm not suggesting that one version is better than the other. Both Collodi's original and Disney's rewrite are wonderful in their different ways. (Eco acknowledges this himself, pronouncing the movie "delightful.") But there's something deeper and more mysterious going on in the book than in the movie. It's a story full of pain and punishment (just and otherwise), mutilation and metamorphosis, death and rebirth, repentance and redemption. I'm not at all surprised by Pinocchio's perrenial popularity. I have little doubt that he'd just as famous today even if he'd never met Jiminy Cricket or wished upon a star. Stories such as his, that go to such deep places within us, aren't easily forgotten. They make their home in our hearts.
Since I first posted this yesterday, a couple of friends have already written, calling me knotty for having gone so far out on a limb for my punny title. And here I thought I'd nailed it! I guess that's the planks I get for trying to keep yew from getting board!