The Fantastic Opening to Pinocchio
NYRB’s monthly Letter from the Editor is by far my favorite publisher newsletter. Edwin Frank is one of the most well-read, articulate editors in the country, and with such great material to write about, his pieces are always incredibly interesting.
The most recent letter is about Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, recently retranslated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, and published with an intro from Umberto Eco. As Edwin explains, this ain’t exactly the same Pinocchio as found in the Disney movie. Even from line one—which I think is one of the best openings I’ve read in a while—expectations are subverted:
Once upon a time there was. . . .
“A King!” my little readers will say at once.
No children, you’re wrong. Once upon a time there was a block of wood.
Edwin goes on to describe how interesting, odd, and complex (in comparison to the Disney version) the book’s opening really is:
The scene that follows is not only unsettling but positively spooky. A carpenter is using his hatchet to trim that piece of wood into a table leg—when, out of nowhere, a not so still small voice cries out: “You’re hurting me!” Pinocchio (who thus oddly exists before he comes into existence) stuns and terrifies the carpenter, known, because of his red and presumably alcoholic nose, as Master Cherry. Master Cherry wonders whether he isn’t just hearing things, and for a moment we wonder too. Throughout the book, a book in which “being real” is a question of paramount importance, Collodi leads us to doubt the reality at hand. Perhaps all this is nothing more than a drunken carpenter’s imaginings? Who knows? But what it is unquestionably is the beginning of a story, and once started the story will have its way. [. . .]
Pinocchio is a book of deep intelligence and pure inspiration, a beautiful work that seems, like its hero, almost to have willed itself into existence. (Collodi, though an accomplished man, never accomplished anything remotely equivalent, and in Pinocchio he amusingly depicts a gang of boys bombarding each other with his books).
When I first heard NYRB was reprinting Pinocchio I was a bit suspicious, but now I can’t wait to get a copy . . .