The Swallowed Man

Edward Carey

Gallic Books, £10

Review by Rosemary Goring

Visitors to Tuscany, especially those who go in search of souvenirs for young children, cannot help but notice the ubiquity of Pinocchio. One toy shop in Florence is devoted to models of the puppet whose “immense nose of ridiculous proportions” grows even longer when he tells a lie. He was the creation of Carlo Collodi, the pen name of Carlo Lorenzini, who took as his surname the village of his birth near Lucca. First published as a book in 1883, The Story of Pinocchio became, despite its shambolic plot, a huge bestseller.

The English author and illustrator Edward Carey is clearly obsessed with the timeless allegory. Among other related projects, he has exhibited at the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi. The words from that exhibition form the basis of the novella The Swallowed Man. One of the outstanding features of Carey’s work is that he draws the characters he writes about, thus producing a book that both reads beautifully and looks appealing.

His narrator is called Joey Lorenzini. When first we encounter him, he is trapped inside the belly of an enormous sea monster. Is it a whale, a shark or, as we are led to believe in the novel’s mischievous afterword, a creature like that which was once washed up on the coast of Maine and which “quite filled the beach with its corpse”? Like his namesake, Joey was born and raised in Collodi, where for generations his forebears made a respectable living hand-painting pottery. Joey’s father hoped that his son would follow his course in life but try as he might the boy could not reproduce exactly the patterns for which the business was renowned. Instead, he became accomplished at creating little things in wood.

This, alas, leads to a schism between father and son. That alone would make a fascinating hook on which to hang a novel and it is one that Carey develops with gentle humour and affecting sensitivity. Joey is forever getting in trouble by going against his parent’s wishes. His carving leads eventually to him creating a puppet from pine wood – pinocchio in Italian. He had long desired, we learn, to make a puppet from which he might make some money and which would become his companion. “I went about it in a creator’s haze,” he relates, “in one of those moments when you are close to the divine, as if something of me and yet something altogether greater were connected to my feeble form as I worked. It was sacred magic.”

Here Joey is defining what an artist does. In that respect, he is no different from Michelangelo sculpting his David out of Carrara marble. Artists, like fathers, must learn to release their creations, to lead their own lives independent of those who have brought them into being. Soon Joey and Pinocchio part company and not on the best of terms. But in attempting to find his “son”, a bereft Joey ends up inside the beast where he takes refuge in a schooner that has also been gobbled up. His story is written on parchment found in the captain’s cabin where he is essentially a prisoner. It is dark in the belly and he writes by the light of a candle of which there is a finite store. Time is running out. He cannot look for Pinocchio but will the puppet want to find him, as he does in Collodi’s original telling, and will he then metamorphose from wood to flesh?

The Swallowed Man is a book unlike any other that I have read for many a long year. That is recommendation enough. Added to which it is written with fluent economy, poetic clarity and imaginative daring. What a high note on which to end this year of too many lows.