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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Baron in the Trees

The Baron in the Trees

Italo Calvino

Young people are fantastic at making dramatic vows.  Not so fantastic at keeping them, but fantastic at making them.  Before we can even speak, we try holding our breath to get our way.  Blue-faced, we’re forced to inhale.  It simply cannot be done.  A bit older, we push our plate away at the dinner table, swearing that we’d rather starve than obey.  Two hours later, we’re hunting through the cupboards.  We run away from home, only to return when it starts to rain.  As a teenager, we vow never to marry, never to work a nine-to-five, never to buy a house and live like those people do.  Never to sell out.  Then we make a vow to marry, to love forever.  We divorce after three years.  Because forever is just too long for us to commit to anything.

But what if we did keep those promises?  In Calvino’s novel, the young baron Cosimo, exasperated with the instruction of his elders, refuses to eat his snails, climbs a tall tree, and swears never to come down.  But unlike the most determined of us, he keeps the promise.  He eats, sleeps, and lives in the trees, never to touch earth again, even unto death.  Long after the reason for the tantrum is gone, long after his father and teachers have died, he keeps the vow, partly on principle, and partly just out of habit.

It’s hard to imagine that sort of dedication to a vow, especially one so absurd.  But chasing hard-to-imagine things to their absurd ends is one of the things that Calvino does best.  Like most of his books, The Baron in the Trees lacks any sort of narrative suspense, but that’s not what it’s about.  It’s just a game disguised as a book, a what-if toy bound in paper.  Calvino builds the toy, pushes it down the slope, sees where it goes.  Each of his works is an experiment.  The Baron is no exception.  As an experiment, as a plaything, it serves well enough.  As a story, it comes up a bit short.  It’s funny to speak of someone as being a brilliant writer but not a great storyteller, but that’s the world that Calvino inhabits.  He builds funny wind-up toys and sets them loose in the yard.  That the toys don’t always go somewhere in particular isn’t necessarily the fault of the builder.  As long as they totter about in an interesting fashion, they’re worth the twist.