The Adventures of Pinocchio vies with Le Petit Prince for the title of the world’s most-translated book after the Bible. So any new version, like the one we have produced for Penguin Classics, needs a justification. Ours is that, in an extensive introduction and almost 180 endnotes, we have attempted to show that The Adventures is a far more complex and sophisticated work than is realised outside Italy, and that it contains a profusion of disguised messages and subtle allusions.
At the most obvious level it is, of course, a children’s story – written in instalments between 1881 and 1883 and published in a newspaper for children, Il Giornale per i bambini, as a cautionary tale. But not really one about lying. That was central to Walt Disney’s 1940 cartoon movie, but in the original narrative Pinocchio’s nose only grows twice when he tells a lie. And not at all in the first run of instalments. The story had finished where Collodi intended it to end, but the instalments resumed after an outcry from the young readers of Il Giornale per i bambini, without which we would have no Pinocchio emoji for a fib, no Pinocchios awarded by the fact-checkers at the Washington Post, and Piers Morgan would not be able to brand Meghan Markle as ‘Princess Pinocchio’.
The crucial mutation in The Adventures, signalled from an early stage in the tale, is Pinocchio’s transformation into a donkey. In Italian, the word for donkey (asino/asina) is applied both to those who fail at school – not necessarily because they are stupid, but because they refuse to study – and to those who are worked to the point of exhaustion, or even death. Collodi’s message to the children of his time was that being a donkey at school leads to working like a donkey afterwards.
Yet, right at the beginning of his story, Collodi drops a broad hint that he plans to write something more than just a fable. Like all good writers, he was allergic to cliché. Yet he began his story with the most hackneyed fairytale cliché of them all: ‘Once upon a time …’. Why?
Collodi’s principal literary enterprise, writing under his real name of Carlo Lorenzini, was satirical journalism. And ‘Once upon a time … ’ was an in-joke among the satirists in his circle. It was a phrase they often used to start articles that were apparently fairy tales, but which were actually social or political satires. Collodi himself was quoted in the journal La Lente in 1856 as having said: ‘Hey! Have you mistaken us for a bunch of kids with that “Once upon a time”? … No. No. Hold on … I’m not telling you a fairy tale as would seem to be the case …’
The Adventures is itself full of satire. Pinocchio goes to court to report the Cat and the Fox for having stolen his money, and the judge, who is an ape, sends Pinocchio to jail instead. And why? For being gullible. A few months later, there is an amnesty – as sooner or later there always is in Italy – but, since Pinocchio hasn’t broken the law, it doesn’t apply to him. So he protests that he too is a crook and is set free.
Collodi’s masterpiece reflects – and takes digs at – other aspects of Italian life that are as pervasive today as they were in the late nineteenth century: the obsession with bella figura (making a good impression), the love of good food, the prevalence of tangenti (kickbacks) and the way furbizia (craftiness) coexists with genuine, spontaneous kind-heartedness.
The Adventures can also be viewed as a Bildungsroman – a remarkably subtle account of how a child gradually sheds his infantile egocentricity to acquire a sense of responsibility towards others. Or it can even be seen as a work of social denunciation in the great nineteenth-century literary tradition. Most unusually for a fairy tale, The Adventures is set in a world in which most of the characters are desperately poor. Hunger runs through The Adventures like a trickle of bile.
This was a world Collodi knew only too well: his father was a cook; his mother a seamstress. And young Carlo was born into one of the darkest, dankest streets in Florence, Via Taddea. The reason why his parents sent him to spend part of his childhood in Collodi, his mother’s hometown and the one that inspired his nom de plume, was to get him away from the appallingly unhealthy conditions that claimed the lives of no fewer than five of his nine siblings, who all died before reaching the age of seven.
The longest-lived, Marianna Seconda, was six years younger than the future author and it is hard to resist the conclusion that memories of her death are to be found in the darkest passage in The Adventures, when Pinocchio is running away from the mysterious hooded figures who want to rob and murder him. He dashes to a little white house in the woods and knocks desperately at the door until a little girl looks out of the window.
‘Her eyes were closed and her hands were crossed on her chest. Without moving her lips at all, she said, in a tiny, feeble voice that seemed to come from the after-world:
“No one lives in this house. Everyone is dead.”
“At least you could open the door for me!” shouted Pinocchio, weeping and pleading for her help.
“I’m dead too.”
“Dead?” Then what are you doing there at the window?”
“I’m waiting for my coffin to come take me away.”
As soon as she had said these words, the little girl disappeared, and the window closed without a sound.’
Kid’s stuff it is not.
By John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna
Buy books from The Italian Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Italian Riveter bookshop.org page.