Books: With poetic clarity and gentle humor, Pinocchio’s creator’s tale unfolds

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The man that was swallowed

About Edward Carey

Gallic Books, 10 GBP

Rosemary Goring Reviewed

The ubiquity of Pinocchio can’t help but be noticed by visitors to Tuscany, especially those looking for souvenirs for young children. In Florence, a toy store is devoted to puppet models, whose “huge nose of ridiculous proportions” grows even longer when he tells a lie. He was the founder of Carlo Collodi, Carlo Lorenzini’s nickname, who took the village of his birth near Lucca as his surname. First published in 1883 as a novel, despite its chaotic plot, “The Story of Pinocchio” became a major seller.

Edward Carey, the English author and illustrator, is evidently fascinated with timeless allegories. He has displayed, among other similar projects, at Collodi’s Parco di Pinocchio. The words from that exhibition form the basis for the novella The Swallowed Man. One of Carey’s work’s excellent qualities is that he sketches the characters he writes about, creating a novel that both reads wonderfully and looks attractive.

Joey Lorenzini is named as his narrator. He is stuck in the belly of a giant sea creature when we first see him. Is it a whale, a shark, or, as we might imagine in the mischievous epilogue of the book, a creature like the one that once washed up on the coast of Maine and “filled the beach entirely with its corpse”? Joey was born and raised, like his namesake, in Collodi, where for generations his ancestors had made a decent living as potters. Joey’s dad hoped that his son might follow suit, but the boy could not correctly replicate the patterns for which the store was known, try as he could. Instead, he became talented at making little things out of wood.

Sadly, this causes a break between father and son. This alone would be a fascinating hook for a book, and with gentle humor and touching empathy, Carey creates it. Joey manages to get into trouble for defying the wishes of his parents. Ultimately, his carving leads him to make a pine marionette – Pinocchio in Italian. We learn that he had long wished to make a marionette for which he could gain some money and which would become his companion. “I went at it with the haze of a creator,” he recounts, “in one of those moments when you are close to the divine, as if something of me and yet something altogether greater was connected to my feeble form as I worked. It was holy magic.”

Joey describes what an artist does here. He’s no different from Michelangelo in this respect, carving his David out of Carrara marble. Artists, like fathers, must learn to let go of their creations, independent of those who brought them into being, to live their own lives. Joey and Pinocchio will soon part ways, and not on the best of terms. But the desperate Joey ends up inside the creature in an effort to locate his “son,” where he seeks shelter in a schooner that has also been devoured. His story is written on the parchment he discovers in the captain’s cabin, where he is essentially an inmate. It’s dark in the stomach, and it’s written by the light of a candle, which has just a limited supply. Time runs out. He can’t look for Pinocchio, but, as in Collodi’s original story, would the puppet want to find him, and then transform from wood to flesh?

The Swallowed Man is like no other book that I’ve been reading for a long time. That’s enough advice. The fact that it is written with fluid economy, poetic clarity, and artistic boldness adds to that. What a high point with so many lows to finish this year.

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