“There is no neat plot to a man’s life. There are endless days, which are like as twins. Mornings and afternoons and nights, one after the other, no true escape but only the calendar to show that the day is gone, and here comes another to take its place. The changes, when they come, are mostly gradual.”
The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey, is undoubtedly a quirky work of fiction but one so cleverly written the reader will be happy to stay on board until the journey’s end. Narrated by Geppetto, the carpenter who made a wooden puppet that came to life and was named Pinocchio, the tale opens as Geppetto is coming to terms with being swallowed by a giant sea creature. Within the belly of this beast he remains alive thanks to supplies he finds on a Danish schooner that is slowly rotting there. He is writing his story in the hope it will be found one day and passed on to Pinocchio, that his creation may know he was loved despite how Geppetto treated him.
The first few chapters explain the practicalities of life inside the sea creature and how Geppetto ended up there.
While living in his hometown of Collodi, he made his wooden boy puppet both as company and with the hope it could earn him some money. Geppetto’s family once owned a successful ceramics factory. Through the telling of his life story we learn why he came to live in penury. The well known story of Pinocchio is a minor element but one that profoundly affects his creator.
Like his father before him, Geppetto was a somewhat cruel parent. He demands that his wooden child be compliant, by force if necessary. When Pinocchio runs away, Geppetto sets out to track him down, feeling guilt but also still hopeful that this is the key to an improved financial future. Those he encounters on his search believe him unstable – who would believe a wooden puppet can be alive?
From within the belly of the beast Geppetto writes of both his own life and the invented lives he creates for those whose pictures he finds in the ship. There are stories within stories, imaginative leaps that help pass the time and tamp down his growing unease. There are desperate attempts at escape. Small friendships are made. Geppetto mulls his memories, often with regret.
As months pass, the damp darkness and solitude drive Geppetto closer to derangement. He fends this off with further creations, seeking company in paintings, crafting sculptures from what scarce materials are available. He thinks constantly of what was lost when Pinocchio left.
Interspersed with the writing are many illustrations – photographs and drawings that add much to key elements of the tale. These were originally part of an exhibition commissioned by the Collodi Foundation for the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi, Italy in 2018. The illustrated book of Geppetto’s journal was published by La Nave di Teseo in Italy and became The Swallowed Man in English.
The unusual setting somehow works providing a compelling story of artistic endeavour as a palliative to loneliness. Geppetto may have been unsuccessful in many aspects of life – career, love, parenthood – and certainly he harbours regrets, yet even in the direst circumstances he clings to hope and survival.
A somewhat whimsical yet percipient tale of love’s complexities woven through an audacious and witty premise. Another fine read from an author whose body of work garners, from this reader, growing admiration.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.