Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and the author of numerous novels and essay collections.

Sky-blue hair, a custard-lined carriage and endless attention

I remember the discomfort we Italian kids felt on first seeing Walt Disney's Pinocchio on the big screen. I should say at once that, watching it again now, I find it to be a delightful film. But at the time, we were struck by the stark difference between the American Pinocchio and the Pinocchio we had come to know both through Carlo Collodi's original text and through the book's early illustrators. (The best known and most popular, though not the first, were Attilio Mussino's 1911 illustrations – every Italian of my generation remembers Pinocchio through Mussino's images.)

The original Pinocchio was woodier than Disney's version – he was an actual marionette. Also, he didn't have that odd and off-putting Tyrolean hat but rather a pointed or "sugarloaf " hat, and his nose, even when it wasn't growing, was long and sharp. There were other differences, too: the Fairy was not a Blue Fairy but a Fairy with blue hair (or rather "sky-blue", as Geoffrey Brock's new translation rightly has it) – you can see what a difference that could make to a boy's imagination, and even to an adult's:

Poor Pinocchio: having been hung by murderers from a branch of the Big Oak, he now seemed more dead than alive. When the Beautiful Girl with Sky-Blue Hair came to her window again, she was moved to pity by the sight of that poor wretch, dangling by his neck, dancing a jig with the north wind. She brought her hands together three times, making three soft claps.

Her signal was followed by a great beating of wings, as an enormous falcon hurtled down from the sky and landed on the windowsill.

"What is your command, my lovely Fairy?" said the Falcon, lowering his beak in a gesture of reverence. (For it just so happens that the Girl with Sky-Blue Hair was nothing other than the kindest of fairies, one who had dwelt in and around that forest for more than a thousand years.)

"Do you see that puppet dangling from a branch of the Big Oak?"

"I see him."

"Now then: fly to him at once, use your powerful beak to tear apart the knot that keeps him suspended in the air, and lay him out gently on the grass, there at the foot of the tree."

The Falcon flew off and two minutes later returned, saying, "I have done as you commanded."

"And how did you find him: alive or dead?"

"He looked dead at first, but he must not be thoroughly dead, because as soon as I loosened the rope around his neck, he sighed and murmured, 'I feel better now!'"

Then the Fairy brought her hands together twice, making two soft claps, and suddenly a magnificent poodle appeared, and he was walking on his hind legs just as people do.

The Poodle was dressed as a coachman, in the finest livery. He wore a tricorn hat with gold-braid trim, a white wig of curly locks that hung down to his shoulders, a chocolate-coloured jacket with diamond buttons and two oversize pockets for storing the bones his mistress gave him at dinner, a pair of crimson velvet breeches, silk stockings, little court shoes, and, behind him, a sort of umbrella cover, made entirely of sky-blue satin, that he put over his tail in rainy weather.

"Be a good boy, Lancelot," said the Fairy to the Poodle, "and go harness the finest carriage in my carriage house and take the forest road to the Big Oak. There you'll find a poor puppet stretched out half dead on the grass. Pick him up gently, lay him ever so carefully on the cushions inside the carriage, and bring him here to me. Do you understand?"

The Poodle wagged the sky-blue satin cover three or four times, to show that he understood, and then raced off like a Barbary steed.

Out of the carriage house, moments later, there came a beautiful little sky-coloured carriage, padded on the outside with canary feathers and lined on the inside with whipped cream, custard, and ladyfingers. It was drawn by a hundred pairs of white mice, and the Poodle, up on the driver's seat, was cracking his whip from side to side, like someone who's afraid he's running late.

In less than a quarter of an hour, the little carriage was back. The Fairy, waiting at the door of the house, took the poor puppet in her arms and carried him into a small room with mother-of-pearl walls. Then she quickly sent for the most famous doctors in the area.

And though I admit that Disney's Jiminy Cricket is an extraordinary invention, he has nothing to do with Collodi's Talking Cricket, who was an actual insect: no top hat, no tailcoat (or was it a frock coat?), no umbrella.

The doctors soon arrived, one after the other. The first was a crow, the second an owl, and the third a talking cricket.

"I would like you gentlemen to tell me," said the Fairy, looking at the three doctors gathered around Pinocchio's bed, "I would like you gentlemen to tell me whether this unlucky puppet is alive or dead!"

Hearing this request, the Crow stepped forward first. He felt Pinocchio's pulse, then he felt his nose, then he felt his little toe, and when he had finished feeling all these things very carefully, he solemnly pronounced these words: "It is my opinion that the puppet is quite dead. But if by some strange chance he is not dead, then that would be a sure sign that he is still alive."

"I regret," said the Owl, "that I must contradict my illustrious friend and colleague, the Crow. I believe, rather, that the puppet is still alive. But if by some strange chance he is not alive, then that would indicate that he is, in fact, dead."

"And you – do you have nothing to say?" the Fairy asked the Talking Cricket.

"I say that the best thing a prudent doctor can do when he doesn't know what he's talking about is to keep his mouth shut. And as for that puppet there, his countenance is not new to me – I've known him for some time!"

Pinocchio had been lying motionless, like a true piece of wood, but at these words he began shuddering feverishly, causing the whole bed to shake.

"That puppet there," continued the Talking Cricket, "is a confirmed rogue."

Pinocchio opened his eyes and quickly shut them again.

"He's a ragamuffin, a lazybones, a vagabond."

Pinocchio hid his face beneath the sheets.

"That puppet there is a disobedient brat who will cause his poor father to die of a heart attack!"

Now everyone in the room could hear the muffled sound of crying and sobbing. Imagine their reaction when, after peering under the sheets, they realized that those cries and sobs were coming from Pinocchio.

"When a dead person cries, it's a sign that he's on the mend," said the Crow solemnly.

"It grieves me to contradict my illustrious friend and colleague," added the Owl, "but I believe that when a dead person cries, it's a sign that he doesn't like dying."

I don't want to mention all the changes to Collodi's plot. This is just to show that the true Pinocchio may be discovered (or rediscovered) through Collodi's story, which first appeared serially between 1881 and 1883 and has since become famous in nearly every language in the world.

It must be said first of all that, though written in the nineteenth century, the original Pinocchio remains as readable as if it had been written in the twenty-first, so limpid and simple is its prose – and so musical in its simplicity. This simplicity poses a challenge to translators, as it is sometimes easier to translate difficult texts well than simple ones (though I wouldn't go so far as to say it's easier to translate Finnegans Wake into Italian than Pinocchio into English). In any case, I believe Brock has remained faithful to Collodi's style.

Pinocchio is an untrustworthy book: it opens with "Once upon a time" and immediately addresses itself to some children, thus presenting itself as a children's book. But then it makes an unacceptable move: it contradicts its little readers ("No, children, you're wrong") and, what's more, thwarts the expectations of adults, who expect even more strongly than children that once upon a time in a fairy tale there will have been a king. This children's book, then, starts out with a wink (or a low blow) to adults, which explains why so many sophisticated adult critics have spent so many pages on it, attempting to interpret it from various angles: psychoanalytic, anthropological, mythological, philosophical, and so on.

Though it's written in very simple language, Pinocchio is not a simple book. I'm tempted to say that it's not even a fairy tale, since it lacks the fairy tale's indifference to everyday reality and doesn't limit itself to one simple, basic moral, but rather deals with many.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Geoffrey Brock's new translation of Pinocchio is published by NYRB Classics.



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