Saturday, June 6, 2009

pinocchio, in depth

Pinocchio, like many of the classic fables, seems to have numerous layers of symbolic meaning, much like the more studied, often darker, fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps the staying power of such stories owes something to our subconscious resonance to the embedded symbolism.

Tim Parks, writing for NYRB (30Apr2009), penned an interesting review for the new translation of the classic, "The Adventures of Pinocchio," by Carlo Collodi, translated by G. Brock. Collodi had a formative background that may well have colored his story of Pinocchio. Born in 1826, the first of ten children in a poor Florentine family, where six of his siblings died in childhood, Collodi knew the hardscrabble life he sets for Pinocchio and the puppet's creator/father, Geppetto. Collodi was educated in a seminary, but in 1848 and 1859 volunteered in two unsuccessful revolutionary wars fought to unify Italy and free it of foreign powers. By the late 1860s the country had been unified, and Collodi began his writing career working for the new Ministry of Education, where he was invited to write for children. As Parks tells it:

"The success of his children's books was welcome but Collodi's ambition had been to write adult literature. Here, however, his work was criticized for failing to deliver realistic character and incident, and for its underlying pessimism about both the new Italy and human nature in general."

Though given an exuberant, feel-good treatment by the Disney movie version of 1940, the original story told the adventures of a brash, gullible, and easily manipulated Pinocchio. Collodi's cynicism about human nature inhabits the puppet's disregard for his poor father's efforts to shelter and educate him, and is palpable in concocting the guileful, unsavory schemes of Cat and Fox for hoodwinking the puppet. (We seem to have reprised Cat and Fox lately in Wall Street's Bernie Madoff gulling his trusting puppets). Parks opines that Collodi's "…irritation at writing in a genre he thought secondary may have contributed to the story's extraordinary mood swings and unusually cavalier approach to such matters as narrative consistency," but which nevertheless contributed to the story's vitality.

Parks relates how Collodi tired of his story and wanted to end it at the point where Cat and Fox, unable to prise Pinocchio's mouth open to get at his hidden gold coins, hang him in a tree, and plan to return for the coins the following morning. However, the publishers prevailed on Collodi to continue, and he presses on with the following remarkable scene:

"Oh, if only you were here, Daddy!" calls Pinocchio. "His eyes closed, his mouth opened, his legs straightened, and then, after a tremendous shudder, he went completely limp."

Parks notes the scene appears suspiciously like an allusion to the Crucifixion. Yes, astonishing, but credible, considering the profane cynicism of the ex-seminarian, turned anti-cleric, and revolutionary soldier, who fought against Papal armies and their foreign allies opposed to unification of Italy.

Other religious symbolism may be ascribed to the character of the blue fairy, a girl with "sky-blue hair," and "her face white as a waxen image," iconography suggestive of Mary, the Blessed Mother figure in the Church. The blue fairy in the story is a recurring figure of solace and comfort to the beleaguered Pinocchio. Here, Collodi seems not so cynical, and perhaps somewhat wistful for the Italian archetypal figure of the ever-caring mother, exemplified by Mary.

In the end, Collodi tells us Pinocchio becomes a boy like other boys. Are we then elated, or are we rather nostalgic for the loss of Pinocchio's former individuality and freedom? But he never showed anything like individuality or enjoyed much freedom as a puppet, and had only ever been a victim of internal whim and external manipulation. Collodi loved such enigmas, and broke lots of conventional fiction writing rules to spin his magical, compelling tale.

The story has always intrigued me, and it may have much more depth and writing craft than I'd previously imagined. A writer could learn a few things from Collodi.
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