Gianni Rodari (1920 - 1980) was an Italian writer and journalist, most famous for his books for children. The recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1970, Rodari is considered by many literary historians to be the country’s most important writer of children’s literature in the twentieth century.
“Gianni Rodari gave free rein to his imagination, with inspired panache and gleeful lightness. At the same time, he had a precise and meticulous love for detail, for rich and exact language, and so all of his inventions are set in a very concrete world with real form and action.”
"Making a comedy out of a terrorist kidnapping is tricky stuff, but this book for both children and adults is a daring highwire act that works. In the shocking tradition of Roald Dahl, this hilarious Italian fairytale is peppered with scuba diving suits, submachine guns and custom sports cars. At times antic with goofy buffoonery, at times grisly with uncomfortable realism—Rodari has a sense of comedy that smacks of the Marx Brothers, but with a darker, post 9/11 edge more in keeping with the grimmer satires of South Park."
Recently, the literary air has buzzed with chatter about “readability”: is a book that is easier to read somehow worth less than one that is more difficult? Should we automatically reward more challenging books over less trying ones?
No, I say! Definitely not, decidedly not!
Let’s look at the fairy tale. This is, incontrovertibly, a stripped-down genre: good versus bad, action and reaction. But we tell and retell these basic stories because of their simplicity and the basic vibrations they stir within us. Gianni Rodari, an Italian writer and journalist, has been most celebrated for his children’s books, but a few of his tales simply sing to us adults who long to be children again.
Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto is a simple and, yes, very readable story about a wealthy Italian baron and his search for immortality. Straying somewhat from the fairy tale model, no one in the story is particularly good (though several are particularly evil). Character depth concerns Rodari far less than character quirks, and the author’s creative capabilities construct an unforgettably charming tale. As any good fabulist knows, the story is in the details.
The charm of numbers, for example, weaves its way throughout the narrative—so deceptively simple but used just right. The Baron Lamberto suffers from twenty-four maladies, a list of which his butler frequently consults.
“The baron gets his numbers mixed up sometimes.’
‘Anselmo, I am really suffering from twenty-three today.’
‘No, my pancreas.’”
Further on, twenty-four bandits named Lamberto — the 24-L — invade the baron’s island. They demand twenty-four million dollars — one million from each of the Baron’s twenty-four banks. To help with this ransom, Lord Lamberto summons the twenty-four bank directors and their twenty-four assistants.
But the bulk of the story’s wonder lies in its love of words. Through repetition of his name by a very well-paid group of six strangers, the Baron realizes his dream of vitality and is reborn — the power of a single word. Rodari, delightfully exercising the craft of comedy, illustrates our own daily neglect in our lazy pronunciations. Signora Zanzi is “very careful not to draw out the second syllable [of Lamberto], to keep from bleating like a sheep.” In general, when the staff pronounces Lamberto’s name, one cannot hear the capital L, a problem that the Baron desperately tries to resolve. Just try not to smile about that.
The story itself is, perhaps, not so unbelievable. It’s not quite science fiction or even fantasy. It’s strange enough and, yet, just slightly not-strange enough that we can begin to believe in it. The quirks, the wordplay, those are for the grown-ups. The temptation to believe in what we know is not true, that’s for the child. And is that not exactly what we want the best fiction to accomplish? Simple it may be, a quick read, certainly, but Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto delighted me in its playfulness. Rodari amended our world into one where even funerals have happy endings.
If you are looking for a book that transports you, that contains details you will return to for years to come, and that you may, someday, give to your children, it’s this one. Simple does not equal simplistic or, worse, deficient.
I am thrilled to have discovered this book and Rodari’s writing as an adult; they will both remain on my shelves, alongside the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, as a story and a storyteller that never grow old (much like the Baron himself). Readers: are there fairy tales to which you continually return? Moral tales, fables, creation stories? Do they remind you of childhood hopes, invigorate forgotten possibilities? I hope so.