Tim Parks: Have you seen my hand?

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‘Look both ways when you cross the street,’ Giovanni’s mother tells him when he goes out. He’s a careless boy, easily distracted, and the reader is primed. In the street, the boy is ‘so pleased with how careful he’s being that he starts hopping along like a sparrow’. A polite gentleman warns him that this is carelessness indeed: ‘You see? You’ve already lost a hand.’ Looking for his hand, Giovanni’s attention is absorbed by a tin can, then a limping dog. He doesn’t even notice he’s lost ‘a whole arm’. Fortunately, a passing woman picks it up and takes it back to his mother. Soon another woman is bringing a foot. Others arrive with a leg, an ear, a nose. Giovanni hops home, ‘cheerful as a sparrow, as he always is’. His mother ‘puts him back together and gives him a kiss’. ‘Is anything missing, Mama? Have I been a good boy?’ ‘Yes, Giovanni, you’ve been a very good boy.’ Gianni Rodari is considered the most innovative Italian children’s writer of the 20th century. His countless stories and rhymes tend to end well, but in the teeth of the evidence. Telephone Tales offers 68 of them ably translated by Antony Shugaar with illustrations by Valerio Vidali.

Rodari’s childhood was not as carefree as Giovanni’s. By his own admission ‘small, scrawny and anaemic’, he was born in 1920 in the village of Omegna, five miles from Lake Maggiore. His father, the local baker, died when he was nine. His mother, a factory worker and domestic servant, ‘poor, humiliated and overworked’, was a staunch Catholic and sent him to a seminary. ‘I was such a submissive child,’ Rodari later wrote, ‘so needy of approval and praise I’d obey anyone who gave me an order.’ Nevertheless he baulked at the discipline of the seminary and was allowed to leave aged fourteen. One of the Telephone Tales opens with a boy who, on his father’s untimely death, inherits a blanket that belonged to him when he was a soldier. ‘When he wrapped himself in it to sleep at night, his mother would tell him a long fairy tale’ – a tale in which a fairy is seeking to weave ‘a blanket big enough to cover all the children in the world and to keep them warm’.

For Rodari, the children’s story is always an act of generosity which favours a process of initiation and liberation. Thus the stories of Telephone Tales, first published in 1962, are supposedly told by a travelling salesman who calls his daughter every evening from public phone boxes to tell her a bedtime story, the length of the story depending on how much change he has in his pocket – rarely more than two pages, or the length of a newspaper article. Rodari spent his whole working life as a journalist and his children’s writing began in the pages of the Communist Party newspaper L’Unità.

In ‘Elevator to the Stars’, Romoletto, a delivery boy at Bar Italia, is sent with a tray of beers and an iced tea to the home of the notoriously impatient Marchese Venanzio, who will ‘throw them all out of the window’ if they don’t arrive instantly. The marchese lives on the sixth floor. The lift is forbidden to tradespeople but Romoletto sneaks in anyway. Instead of stopping on the sixth, the lift accelerates into the sky. ‘Before Romoletto had time to be astonished, all of Rome lay spread out beneath him.’ ‘So long, Marchese Venanzio,’ he murmurs. ‘With his left hand, he was still carefully balancing the tray with the drinks. It seemed almost funny, since the elevator was surrounded by increasingly vast expanses of interplanetary space.’ ‘At least I won’t arrive among the Martians empty-handed,’ he thinks. The lift falls back to the ground floor. Chastened, the boy runs up the stairs to the sixth. ‘Yuri Gagarin … would already have landed on the moon,’ the marchese fumes, but his drinks are still pleasingly cold.

Rodari first thought seriously about children’s education in 1937, when he tutored the son and daughter of a Jewish family who had fled Germany. They would soon flee Italy too. In the meantime, Rodari made the effort to learn German and read Novalis: ‘If we had a Fantastics as we have a Logics, we would have discovered the art of invention.’ Thirty-six years later Rodari would publish his own, extraordinary Grammatica della fantasia, an exploration of the art of inventing stories. One of the keys, he suggests, in a lively discussion of surrealism, is to find a mutually illuminating tension between reality and fantasy. So a telephone tale begins: ‘Once upon a time Giovannino Vagabond decided to travel to Rome to touch the king’s nose.’ And with great comic aplomb we explore the distance between state-sanctioned power and infant impertinence. What does it mean to touch a nose? Why does Giovannino want to do it? What does the king understand by it? Or again: ‘Once upon a time, in Gavirate, there was a little old lady who spent her days counting other people’s sneezes.’ And now we are in the world of middle-class control, eavesdropping and gossiping. The unseemly vitality of the sneeze. The little old lady gets her comeuppance in a cloud of black pepper cast from a victim’s window.

When war came, Rodari was too small and sickly to be enlisted. (A favourite character of his is tiny Alice, so small she can get lost in her grandfather’s pocket.) He taught in primary schools, then in 1943 was called up by the fascist Republic of Salò; he served briefly in a military hospital, then escaped to join the partisans, though he spent much of 1944 recovering from an appendix operation. After the war he joined the Communist Party and was given the task of writing propaganda for the party’s paper in Varese, before being invited to write for L’Unità, first in Milan, then Rome.

In Vanessa Roghi’s biography, Lezioni di fantastica, Rodari comes across as a fish out of water at the fiercely ideological paper. He was a country boy among city intellectuals, possessing only one suit for work, extremely reserved about his private life, living with his widowed mother. Yet he was always fun to be with, full of jokes, tossing off rhymes and doggerel. So in 1949 he was asked to write a humorous column for the Sunday edition, to give the paper a touch of levity, but his superiors complained that his pieces looked more like things for children. And so they changed his brief: write a column for children. It was a first for L’Unità, and an instant success.

Perhaps this explains the intriguing ambiguity of Rodari’s stories: it’s never clear quite who they’re for. ‘I wasn’t writing for just any old children,’ he later reflected, ‘but for children with a political paper in their hands. So I was pretty well obliged to move away from the traditional models for children’s literature, to talk with them about the things of every day.’ At the same time he knew that parents would be reading over their children’s shoulders, and for the most part these people were farm and factory workers. He had to please a ‘double public’. ‘With the excuse that these were “things for kids”, I could … say what I had in mind the way I liked to say it.’ As the Cold War set in, a Communist Party newspaper office could be a dour, embattled environment. Orthodoxy was at a premium and files were kept on all employees. Writing for children offered a certain licence for a man who dreamed of freedom but urgently needed a job. ‘A young crayfish wondered: “Why does everyone in my family walk backwards? I want to learn how to walk forwards.”’ His parents are shocked, the whole community appalled. The young crayfish is thrown out, to pursue his bizarre love of straight walking and straight talking far from home. Whether it is a critique of traditional society or the Communist Party hardly matters. It is rather as if Winston Smith had found space to play in the Ministry of Truth.

But what were ‘the traditional models for children’s literature’? Two hugely successful classics dominated the Italian scene: Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, published in 1882, and Edmondo De Amicis’s Cuore (Heart), published in 1886. The latter is a boy’s diary of a school year, with occasional interventions from his father and mother and long episodes – which the 11-year-old Enrico dutifully copies down – recounting the courage (and deaths) of children in the Risorgimento wars. Beautifully told, drenched in pathos, Cuore is an extended appeal to children to sacrifice their own inclinations to the collective will of their nearest and dearest and the good of the community in general. ‘Come to your senses,’ Rodari’s crayfish is told by his mother. ‘Walk the way your father and mother taught you, walk like your brothers and sisters who love you so dearly.’

Rodari admired Cuore and loathed it. In particular he could not forgive De Amicis for his invention of Franti, a boy who ‘hates school, hates his companions, hates the teacher’, laughs in everyone’s face, steals and bullies. ‘It was a serious crime,’ Rodari felt, ‘to have imagined a child so totally and irremediably evil.’ He refused to believe such creatures existed. If there was a moral obligation in the grim years following a world war, it was to be positive: ‘Utopia is no less educational than the critical spirit. One need only move it from the world of intelligence … to that of the will.’

Rodari’s Giovannino Vagabond chances one day on the ‘country with an “un” in front’. What could that mean? A citizen shows him what looks like a pencil sharpener but is in fact an ‘unsharpener … to make pencils longer when they’re worn down to a stub … very useful in schools’. There is also a conceptually more challenging ‘clothes unhanger’: rather than hanging up clothes that you have had to buy, you simply take clothes for free from the unhanger. ‘We save lots of money that way.’ There are also uncannons and unbugles. ‘If there’s a war, we blow the unbugle, we fire the uncannon, and the war is immediately unwaged.’ So much for the heroics of De Amicis’s Risorgimento children.

In 1952, Rodari wrote to Italo Calvino, then an editor at the Einaudi publishing house, proposing a critical work on Pinocchio. The book’s ‘ties with reality’, he claimed, ‘are deeper and more complex’ than those of Cuore. It captured the child’s ‘need of freedom’ as well as his guilt when he seeks to achieve it. And it spoke ‘to adults of their own infancy’ in ‘a constant dialectic of rebellion and acceptance’, a dialectic largely conveyed by the back and forth between fantasy and reality, but also by the adventurous use of language. Rodari is a great inventor of words, a connoisseur of the kind of orthographical and grammatical mistakes that unleash unexpected energies (to the point of writing The Book of Errors, a rhymed encyclopaedia of common mistakes children make in Italian). One of the finest stories in the Telephone Tales is about two children who have invented their own language. An old man and an old lady, sitting on opposite balconies, hear them saying ‘brif, braf’ in the courtyard. ‘Maraski, barabaski.’ ‘How silly these children are,’ the lady complains. ‘I don’t think they’re silly,’ the man says, and offers translations. The silliness escalates. The man goes on translating: ‘The first child said “How happy we are to be here on Earth.” And the second one answered, “The world is beautiful.”’ ‘Is it really so beautiful?’ demands the old lady. ‘Brif, braf, bruf,’ the man answers.

On the back of his success in L’Unità, Rodari wrote The Adventures of Cipollino (1951), featuring a young working-class onion involved in a class war against Prince Lemon and Sir Tomato. As ever, what is at stake is liberty, with most of the plot revolving around imprisonment and flight. The book was hugely popular in the Soviet bloc, with the result that Rodari spent the rest of his life making regular trips to Russia. Like other illustrious compatriots, Calvino and Dario Fo included, he seemed blind to the anti-libertarian aspects of what was going on there. Socialism ‘for us means more liberty’, he said. And the enemies of liberty were middle-class anxieties and proprieties.

In ‘Dog Town’, every one of the community’s 99 little houses has ‘a little yard with a little gate, and behind each gate was a barking dog’ for protection. This is bad enough when a resident walks by, but if an outsider should turn into the street the din is deafening and the 99 housewives lower their shutters in fear. The dogs bark so loudly that people can’t hear themselves speak and eventually forget how to talk. ‘It’s an epidemic,’ Giovannino Vagabond thinks, passing through, and he suggests to the mayor that they knock down all the fences and gates and let the dogs go off hunting and perhaps throw some street parties. ‘Bow-wow!’ the mayor replies.

In​ 1950, Rodari wrote an article in which he imagines the books of the Universale Economica, a collection of classics at low prices, on the shelf of a labourer. Side by side, Spinoza, Gogol, Feuerbach and others are arguing together, but mostly marvelling at their conversations with the labourer. Collodi is among them. ‘You would have man evolve from the trunk of a cherry tree, would you?’ Darwin condescends as Pinocchio plays a trick on Hugo’s Javert. Rodari was claiming parity of seriousness for the children’s writer. In 1960 he was vindicated when Einaudi offered to bring out editions of his writings alongside those of the country’s most serious intellectuals.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Rodari became ever more involved in a movement to reform Italy’s school system. In addition to his journalism, now for the paper Paese Sera, he travelled widely, visiting school after school, in Italy and abroad, inventing ingenious ways to involve children in the process of storytelling, convinced that this was the key to liberalising society. The old formula of discipline and punishment, he thought, must be abandoned.

Running a children’s weekly, he worked until five most mornings, then would stay out until at least six, smoking cigarettes in the Gianicolo, so as not to wake his baby daughter. There were fights with left-wing intellectuals who weren’t happy to see cartoons in Communist Party publications: too American, too frivolous. And with others who thought that anything that wasn’t gritty Neorealism was a bourgeois fraud. There were fights with the church, which had already excommunicated Rodari after he wrote a handbook for the Communist youth organisation. There was the trauma of acknowledging Russian repression in Hungary in 1956 and again in Czechoslovakia in 1968. All the same, Rodari went on touring schools in the Soviet bloc, inviting teachers to let children express themselves freely: one must never suppose, he insisted, that imagination was the exclusive prerogative of genius. Art must be democratised. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Prize, the international award for children’s writing.

At the edge of a town, we read in ‘The Road to Nowhere’, among other roads leading to familiar destinations, there was one that led nowhere at all – or so people said. One little boy doesn’t believe it: it must go somewhere, he says. Martino is so insistent he’s given the nickname Hardhead. And one day he takes the road, which goes on and on through a huge forest, but eventually brings him to a castle, a princess and a pile of treasure. After his return, others try to take the same way, and find nothing but ‘a dense wall of trees in a sea of thorns’.

The more Rodari promoted freedom and independence the more he became imprisoned in the projects of his admirers. In 1968 he agreed to take on the editorship of the communist-funded Giornale dei Genitori. It was another enormous chore. Grammatica della fantasia, published in 1973, offers a range of fascinating strategies for stimulating the imagination, all entertainingly argued and theorised – ‘not,’ Rodari explained, ‘in order that everyone become an artist, but so that no one be a slave.’ Yet the book has no tips for saying no to onerous demands, or for forcing employers to pay you properly. Like other Einaudi writers, Rodari was paid scandalously little and criminally late. In 1976 he resigned his position at the Giornale dei Genitori, mentioning overwork and underpay; he wrote to Giulio Einaudi complaining of hypertension, high cholesterol and nervous exhaustion. He took three months off to write the charming novel Twice upon a Time There Was the Baron Lamberto in which, on the advice of an Arab sage, the moribund 93-year-old Lamberto, owner of 24 banks but beleaguered by 24 illnesses, hires six people and pays them exorbitant wages to repeat his name without cease day and night in the attic of his island castle, something that causes him to grow younger and younger and less and less interested in money.

The affirmation of the author’s own name had no such salubrious effects. In the autumn of 1979 a two-month trip to Russia proved fatal. Rodari was physically exhausted and above all deeply depressed. At last it was clear to him how grim the Soviet Union had become, and how far its people were from being free: ‘They put up with any and everything without even protesting, expecting others, higher up, to act for them.’ And of the schoolchildren: ‘I did everything I could to stir them, in vain: they seemed frozen.’ Six months later, in hospital for an operation on an occluded artery that he would not survive, he told a friend ‘the wind in Moscow cut right through my legs. That’s where it started.’

‘He took stories apart and put them back together like toys,’ Rodari’s wife remembered in a rare interview. Often it seems the reassembly is an attempt to construct the kind of relationship between protagonist and world that Rodari himself would have liked. It is this discreet private yearning, I suspect, that makes the stories so appealing. In ‘On the Beach at Ostia’, a ‘whimsical and most peculiar gentleman’ finds every inch of sand already taken. So he opens the beach umbrella he has brought and immediately floats up a couple of metres above the crowd. Suspended in the air, he opens up a lounge chair and settles down to read. The beachgoers only notice him when he drops his book and has to ask them to toss it back up. Books, it seems, constitute his only need for a relationship with them. ‘Who knows who he really was or where he bought that beach umbrella?’ the story ends.

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