Jerome Shea       September 2, 2007      Weekend Wonk

On the streets of Florence, second only to reproductions of David are reproductions—often keychain size—of Pinocchio, the world’s most famous puppet. This is as it should be, I suppose. Just as Michelangelo was a revered native son, so was Carlo Lorenzini, who gave us one of the world’s most famous children’s stories.

We know him as Carlo Collodi, a name he took from his mother’s village. He was born in 1826, spent his life as a newspaperman and something of a political gadfly, and died in 1890. He wrote Le avventure di Pinocchio between 1881 and 1883. He is buried at San Miniato al Monte, in Florence, farther up the hill from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

My wife bought a little Pinocchio doll for each of our granddaughters (David just didn’t seem appropriate!) and decided to introduce them to this famous story. Poppy began by eavesdropping, then waded into the original thirty-six chapter “novel for children” himself. My favorite edition was the translation by E. Harden, with wonderful illustrations by Roberto Innocenti. The original Pinocchio, the real Pinocchio, is violent, maddeningly episodic, perverse, and often just plain weird. And it sticks in the mind like a burr.

What do you know of the story? For most of us it is a blur and a grab bag. Pinocchio, we remember, is a puppet made by the woodcarver Geppetto. The story recounts his adventures on the way to earning his right to be turned into a flesh and blood little boy (and becoming a real son to the doting Geppetto). There is something in there about being swallowed by a whale, right? And being turned into a donkey? And a fox and a cat, among others, lead him astray? Finally—yes—there is the “blue haired child” who has some magical powers and who finally grants Pinocchio’s and Geppetto’s wish.

Oh, yeah: and his nose grows when he tells a fib.

I think that most of us are remembering not the original but the immensely popular animated adaptation by Walt Disney (1940): “When You Wish upon a Star” and all that. Disney, in fact, turned the “blue-haired child” into the Blue Fairy (Collodi is rather vague about her himself, switching from “child” to “fairy” at whim).

Another thing Disney did was make Jiminy Cricket a star. There really is a talking cricket in the original, but he has a very small part and no name. He is, depending upon your mood, either a stout moral guide or an insufferable little twerp. He is introduced in Chapter 4, where ill-tempered Pinocchio hits him with a mallet! Yuck! I figured that was the end of him, cricket guts sliding down the wall. But no. He pops up in the middle of the book, joining the two halves together as it were, and then reappears in the very last chapter, still a twerp if you ask me, though a magnanimous twerp. Jiminy Cricket he ain’t.

The book was written in two parts. Some say that Collodi did not intend the book for children. If so, he chose a strange venue: it was serialized, after all, in Il Giornale dei Bambini, the first “children’s newspaper.” Anyway, presumably he was satisfied with the first 15 chapters and was ready to pack it in at that point. But Chapter 15 ends with Pinocchio’s being hanged! (Betcha didn’t remember THAT!) Well, the publisher could not countenance all those traumatized bambini, so he persuaded Collodi to rescue Pinocchio and push on, which he did (grudgingly?) for another 21 chapters, until finally, with the Blue Fairy’s help, Pinocchio does get to be a real boy.

Plagiarisms (“homages,” to be charitable?) abound. In Chapter 16, the Blue Fairy’s carriage and servants seem lifted from Cinderella, the donkey episode owes a big debt to Apulieus, and we’ve all heard that “Leviathan Swallows Man Alive” bit before. Sometimes Pinocchio seems more pastiche than invention. My favorite for gratuitous weirdness, though, is Chapter 20, in which Pinocchio comes upon a huge green serpent blocking the road. “Its skin was green, its eyes were fiery, and its pointed tail smoked like a chimney.” Perhaps it was the smoking tail, but I thought I had got magicked back to the psychedelic Sixties! (I should be more understanding. My wits flag, too, when having to crank out yet another Weekend Wonk.) Pinocchio takes a tumble so ridiculous that the snake laughs until its heart ruptures and it dies. End of chapter.

The pace picks up shortly thereafter. The blue-haired child appears to have died, but then we find out that, no, she didn’t, not really. We realize gradually that the blue-haired child will be sister to Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy a mother figure, and of course Geppetto the father. A family is coming together here. And Pinocchio seems finally to be learning from all his foolishness and ingratitude. The closer he gets to being a boy, the stronger he gets, so much does he long for the change. But this is a story of redemption and Pinocchio is not yet ready. On the eve of his becoming a real boy, and after putting up a really impressive resistance, he finally surrenders to the wiles of Lampwick and the other wicked boys and goes off with them to Playland, where—no surprise—he and the others are gradually turned into donkeys by the evil cart driver.

More misfortunes ensue. Pinocchio gets swallowed by the huge shark, and whom does he find eking out an existence in its belly but old Geppetto, who has been searching the world for him. Together they gush forth from the leviathan—there’s resurrection for you!—and make their way home. Pinocchio has finally learned to be a genuine good boy and so becomes—a genuine good boy. The puppet slumps haplessly against a chair, a heap of jumbled sticks.

For all my carping, the story does stick in the mind like a burr. I think it is because of Collodi’s wonderful central symbol, Pinocchio himself, a puppet but a puppet without strings, alive and yet not alive, who fails test after test but finally achieves the mixed blessing of mortality. The critic Benedetto Croce felt that the “wood from which Pinocchio is carved is Humanity itself.”*

Perhaps so. We can only wish Geppetto’s little boy desperate good luck.

*quoted in the 2002 edition, trans. Nancy Canepa

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