The Wooden Boy: Onward and Upward

Posted by on February 23rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Angelo Patri’s Pinocchio in America leaves good old Gepetto and the supplementary cast (Candlewick, Fire Eater, those ubiquitous knaves, the Fox and the Cat) to share their fabulous past. Pinocchio (with no mention, as I recall, of his wooden origin) bobs up in New York harbor, c. 1925, where an Irish barge captain feeds him corned beef and cabbage. Shortly thereafter, two Italian-American youngsters temporarily adopt him: Tony and Camilla, who invite him to a spaghetti dinner. “He is our guest — let’s not notice his mistakes, ” advises the good woman.

With that unfolds a saga of immigrant boyhood in the U. S. A. The didactic, finger-wagging tendencies of  Carlo Collodi’s original (in which he instructs, gently, his  “little readers”), is muted. In Patri’s version, there occurs one terrifying attack of self-perception: Pinocchio has tumbled into an abandoned well. But even such distressing perceptions are neutralized by Patri’s humor, and sweet equanimity. A warm familiarity and non-didactic charm en­rich Patri’s fioretti. One episode has Pinocchio swiping, and eating, a pie, left out to cool by a neighbor lady of redoubtable, flinty reputation. Pin finally confesses — only to be told that the pie was baked for him. A formidable local legend, handled with kindly iconoclasm. Pin’s installation amid regional Americana is crowned when he acquires a puppy dog named Patsy. The pooch’s description radiates Angelo Patri’s kindly sensuous humanism.

Patri’s little volume breathes a kindly worldliness that actually enlarges upon Collodi’s florid melodramatics and earthy vigor. And does honor to his name; restoring (for older readers) and augmenting (for all readers) a wonderful legend’s sensuous hardihood, and robust fun. In so doing, it recalls to us the old story’s plaited texture: a didactic fable, interwoven with high-paced regional color (the clamorous puppet theater, where the puppet repertory rally to hail Pinocchio, their liberated hero). The story’s rambunctious opening culminates in a dead-serious wrestling match between Gepetto, Pinocchio’s foster father, and Master Cherry, his discoverer. The long-running fable/adventure yarn/didactic allegory bulges (as Guy Davenport, for one, has pointed out) with invocations of classic texts: Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the Book of Jonah; primitive legends of the Madonna. All roll before our perception, with no breath of didactic exhibitionism, or jarring eclecticism: a fragrantly blooming cherry tree of hardy life, and wanderer’s wisdom. Add: Angelo Patri’s mellow, smiling memorandum. Of especial sly charm: Pinocchio’s introduction to American schools He is uncertain whether a  ”vaccination” is an exotic animal or a fruit. Once in the classroom, he is introduced to the Watchful Rooster, a fussy and feathery old bird who, however, can be pleased when Pinocchio deploys the magic Pencil: a fairy gift, responding to deep concentration and vigorous mind play.  This is Angelo Patri’s loving nod to his early years.

One final appreciative note: The mellowly aged edition with which I grew up (never supplanted by Disney’s cartoon cosmetics) has been re -invoked, rather than supplanted, in Patri’s book: vivacious woodcut chapter headings (usually, with comradely mockery, illustrating the quotes from the text); Pinocchio’s tutor and monitor  (nicknamed  “The Watchful Rooster’) is a bodacious Big Bird, indeed; “An Ape is an Ape” [from an Italian proverb?) depicts an impish (and chimpish) Follow the Leader (a strutting Pinocchio). A warm, richly whimsical, supplement to an epic for numerous ages.

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