Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pinocchio in Venice

I think Robert Coover's ribald comic novel Pinocchio in Venice (originally published in 1991) is a much more insightful and perhaps even enjoyable book about this city--and the myths of this city--than, say, Geoff Dyer's Jeff In Venice. But I'm not sure how many people will agree.

For one thing, Pinocchio in Venice is not a realistic work. At every point in Coover's book a lover of Venice will know precisely and vividly where he or she is: the squero of San Trovaso, the church of San Sebastiano, Campo Santa Margherita beneath the truncated campanile, the Biblioteca Marciana, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but it's nothing like making your way around the city with Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti. For the protagonist of Coover's book is Pinocchio himself, reimagined as an aged, internationally-esteemed Nobel Prize-winning moral philosopher returning to his native city of Venice from his adopted home of America, while the city of Venice becomes the stage for a raucous, irreverent, obscene and even blasphemous tale in the manner of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte

Collodi's devilish little puppet who, after many travails learned to be so Good as to finally become a real boy, has made a career out of his virtue. Coover's Pinocchio is, at the outset of the novel, a sober, profoundly-respectable literary man: part Gustav von Aschenbach (from Death in Venice), part Plato. More than simply a spokesman for an ethical human life devoted to Reason and the Highest Ideals, he is widely considered, indeed, their very embodiment. 

Well, at least until he returns to Venice, where he aims to complete what he knows will be his last and (hopefully) greatest work. For after more than a century of human life, Pinocchio finds himself, to his great shame, losing flesh and returning to his puppet form. But in Venice absolutely nothing goes as the good professor plans and his vaunted Reason--of which he has written so much--doesn't keep him from making all the same disastrous mistakes of his infamous ill-spent puppet youth, with the very same characters (or descendents of those characters) who led him astray before.

To really enjoy Pinocchio in Venice, it's best to know both Collodi's original story as well as the Disney film, as Coover plays upon both of them (sometimes at the same time). Mann's Death in Venice is also a must as Pinocchio is, at least when the book begins, just as "stiff" a personage as Von Aschenbach. In fact, Pinocchio's arrival in the city and his struggles with a difficult porter echo Von Aschenbach's problems with his menacing gondolier at the start of Mann's book, as Pinocchio's later inevitable struggles with lust for a young beloved play upon those of his German antecedent.    

It's not the easiest book to read: the sentences are long and complex, the pace frantic, the antics absurd--and sometimes embarrassingly so. There's an extended scene at the squero of San Trovaso where a befouled Pinocchio is licked clean by two talking watchdogs that I found especially trying. And, yes, dogs and puppets and even San Marco's stone lion on the Piazza clock tower all talk, just as similar creatures talk in Collodi. In fact, nearly all of Pinocchio's old friends and nemeses reappear in this book: Mangiafuoco's puppet troupe, the Blue Fairy, the dog who saved him from the green fisherman, the fox and the cat, and the boy Eugenio, who survived the assault from the nearly fatal book to become (in this book) the protege and heir of the Little Man who ran Toyland.

One of the book's running jokes is that the setting for everything that happened in Collodi's original story was actually Venice. The Field of Miracles where Pinocchio buried his money, for example, was actually the Campo dei Miracoli; the place where the donkey-boys were auctioned off was on Giudecca. And what old city could lay a better claim to being Toyland than the spectacularly rich Venice in its decline, when the Republic (even before its final collapse) contracted to a city of illicit pleasure? In the words of the lascivious Eugenio, Venice was "The Original Wet Dream."

Another of my favorite of the book's conceits is that the evil exploitive Little Man, who lured bad boys to donkeyhood and slavery, was the person responsible for the development of the industrial zone at the edge of the lagoon and represents every other short-sighted act of shameless unscrupulous greed that still threaten the city's existence. In the book, the original Little Man has died and is buried on San Michele, but not before incorporating himself as Omino e figli S.R.L. Eugenio, as the head of this corporation, is heavily involved in the privatization of as much of the city as he can lay hands on--even the Palazzo Ducale.

Alas, this last detail, the privatization of Venice that began around 1990 and continues apace is not merely fictional.

And that's the thing about this novel: as outlandish as its plot and characters may be, it remains essentially if not always literally true to the city of Venice--its history, its painters, its people, its present. For example, the first part of the book especially is filled with all kinds of crude pithy sayings about life that are perfect comic imitations of the kind of crude pithy sayings Venetians still utter. Moreover, the verbal and imaginative extravagance of the novel, its madcap energy, capture not only the air of Commedia dell'Arte, but of the physical city itself--where everywhere you look you're overwhelmed with an abundance of historical and cultural and social details. To look at a famous building in Venice is not to see simply a building, but a building overlaid with all the images you've already seen of that building, all the things you may have heard about it, or read about, or fantasized about it. Because of the city's history and fame, I'm tempted to say there's a lot going on in even the quietest calli of the city. By writing in a fantastical manner Coover may have an easier time evoking this all-at-once complexity than a someone who writes in a more realistic mode. 

Or as another lover of Venice (John Ruskin) pointed out in one of his earliest works (Modern Painters), it's a mistake to think of art as being merely a literal imitation of reality, of having what is almost a one-to-one correspondence with what exists in the world. Art, even representational art, was not tied to reality, Ruskin suggested, but its own enclosed system: beside but apart from the real world. The artist did not represent the real world, she created in her own medium and according to its own demands an equivalent of it.

I think this is what Coover has done in Pinocchio in Venice: an entertaining and illuminating re-imagining of the Pinocchio story--its history, incarnations, and uses--as well as a lively equivalent of the magical earthy divine corrupt and infinitely complex city of Venice. Where the simple notions of good behavior that we were supposed to have learned from the original tale of Pinocchio rarely take us too far.

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