Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto

Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto
Gianni Rodari
192 Pages
Melville House
Published December 6, 2011

I'm not even sure where to start with this.  Have you ever read something and really, truly enjoyed reading it but still left you with the lingering feeling that you've missed something?  That there's a hidden subtext or a grand statement that you've completely failed to notice?  That's how I felt reading Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto.

The story is this: Baron Lamberto is "an exceedingly elderly gentleman (he is ninety-three years old) who is very wealthy (he owns twenty-four banks in Italy, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and so on) and invariably ill."  Lamberto and his butler, Anselmo, come across a cure that involves hiring six individuals to repeat the baron's name over and over.  The idea being that "the man whose name is spoken remains alive." Lamberto eventually begins to pull a Benjamin Button and ages in reverse so that after a while he is an energetic young man.

But what is a book without conflict?  There's the arrival of Lamberto's soda-addicted nephew Ottavio, who conspires to hasten his Lamberto's demise so that he may inherit his uncle's vast fortune.  There is also a group of bandits, called the 24-L (because all of the bandits are also named Lamberto) that take the baron hostage.  And then there's the twenty-four bank managers that convene to try to negotiate with the bandits, only to be confused by fact that their ninety-three year-old boss looks a lot different these days.

Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto was first published in Italian in 1978 as Twice Upon a Time there was a Baron called Lamberto or The Mysteries of the Isle of San Giulio and was Rodari's last book (he died in 1980).  This is the first time it has appeared in English in an excellent translation by Antony Sugaar.  This Melville House edition also contains some wonderful illustrations by Federico Maggioni.

I don't know much about children's books.  If Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto is a children's book then it's like the Pixar of children's books.  There's a lot of silliness and lots of fun details.  For example, there's a section that lists the locations (and the elevations of the locations) of all of the international journalists that have come to cover the hostage crisis.  At one point the journalists are shouting questions at the grandchildren of the man that operates the ferry between the mainland and Lamberto's island.  One of the questions is "How much is three times eight makes twenty-four?"  For the kids this is just silliness, but for adults there's a certain amount of familiarity in how modern media spectacles play out.

The language is a lot of fun too.  I giggled out loud when I read this section about the twenty-four bank managers:
They get to their feet as one man, bid the mayor good day, walk down to the town square, climb back onto their tour bus, followed by their twenty-four shadows and their twenty-four personal secretaries. The driver quickly conveys them to Miasino, where their secretaries have rented for them a seventeenth-century villa, with eighteenth-century frescoes, nineteenth-century paintings, and twentieth-century electrical appliances.
The whole time I was reading Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto, I was thinking about what an amazing translation it is.  The language is incredibly precise and I had to run to the dictionary a few times.  It's so rare that a translation doesn't feel at all like a translation - it all felt so natural and perfect.

As I said above, I did have a nagging feeling that I was missing something.  Rodari makes a few explicit references mythology a few times (the ferryman Duilio's nickname is Charon) and I kept wondering if there was more there that I just didn't see.

Overall the writing is excellent and the story is fun and surprising.  The story is told in such a joyful way and I felt like Rodari was winking at me the entire time.  The illustrations are a lot of fun and add to the playful elements of the book.  It's the kind of book I can definitely see returning to when my kids are older.

Rating: 8/10

Book Source: purchased

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