THERE'S BEEN A LOT written lately on the value of finishing (or not finishing) novels, of how much more alive nonfiction is by comparison, of what matters about facts, and of the iron will needed to duck technology long enough to concentrate on anything. Following the conversation closely can drive anyone to pathology — for my part, I’ve been seeking refuge in fairy tales. This is partly for their interest as stories that demand to be taken in swiftly, as a whole — at least, I’m not sure it’s possible to tell much about a Grimm tale without reaching the end, and have never heard of anyone groaning about the boring bits — and partly because of their blessedly carefree exercise of the imagination. No disrespect to reality and our hunger for it, but humble old fairy tales, often our gateway into fiction’s fantastic potential, seem like a good reminder of what made us love stories in the first place.
I was glad, then, to stumble upon Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto, an extended and absurd modern fairy tale written by Gianni Rodari and now published in translation by Melville House. Rodari, who wrote hundreds of stories, poems and songs for children, was born in 1920 in the town of Omegna in Italy’s north, and worked as a teacher, editor, and especially, journalist. Spared army service on account of ill health, he joined the Resistance and became a Communist Party member, and began writing for children in party-affiliated outlets in the 1950s. Despite the fact that his books were banned by the Catholic Church — a special honor for a children’s book writer, one would think — he eventually won wider recognition, and in 1960 he collaborated with the Education Cooperation Movement, a role that had him engaging with kids and teachers in schools across the country. Along the way he had a daughter of his own, and his relatives had children: with Rodari in the car, you might be regaled with the tale of a Midas, who, after turning everything he touched to gold, began to turn it to shit. Such experiences, combined with his prolific writing life, helped influence Rodari’s beliefs about the importance of fostering children’s imaginations, and also to develop some acute thoughts about creativity and literature in general. In Italy, it seems, he is remembered and loved much in the same way English-speakers cherish Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, and William Steig.
It’s unclear if Lamberto is intended for adults, teenagers, or precocious children, an ambiguity that either doesn’t much matter, or is to the book’s credit. The story centers on Baron Lamberto, a 93-year-old millionaire living on the island of San Giulio, surrounded by Lake Orta. During a trip with his servant Anselmo to his Egypt mansion, the baron meets a fakir who tells him a secret: “the man whose name is spoken remains alive.” Promptly the baron sets off for home and hires a group of people to stand in his attic and declaim ‘Lamberto’ around the clock. Our hero’s hair grows back, his wrinkles fade, his many ailments disappear. All looks to continue rosily, but for two unexpected occurrences: Ottavio, Lamberto’s nephew and only living relation, suddenly visits from Rome. A known ne’er-do-well, Ottavio has gambled away his fortune and wants to speed up his inheritance. Meanwhile, a gang of 24 armed bandits boat over to the island and hold everyone hostage. They say they’re all named ‘Lamberto,’ too...read more