Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Martin Summerfield
“He knew something of sorrow, remembered joy, and devoutly hoped – as much as he consciously hoped for anything other than proper allotments of sunshine and rainfall – never again to encounter either of those old annoyances.”
It’s very tempting to close yourself off to the world around you and want to retreat to nature. The protagonist of In Calabria, Claudio Bianchi is a taciturn farmer, sometime poet and full time hermit. He is a man who has closed himself off to the world around him. With the exception of weekly visits from the postman, Romano, his goat Cherubino, and his cat “Third Cat” Bianchi has virtually no contact with another living creature. This all changes when the preternatural makes an incursion on Bianchi’s life in the form of a unicorn, an inciting event which forces Bianchi to confront his past and question his carefully cultivated solitude. The unicorn’s presence inspires Bianchi to write poetry at a prolific rate, and in a lesser book this might be the focus of the story, but as Bianchi only writes poetry for himself, he just does what Emily Dickinson did and puts the untitled poems in the kitchen drawer.
There is something of the mock epic in the pages of In Calabria, as Bianchi constantly questions the unicorn, which he dubs La Signora, about why she should choose his poor farm in the remote town of Calabria to deliver her foal in such a poor environment rather than “the magical woodlands of Tuscani” or the mountain ranges of the Aspromonte. Peter Beagle’s strength as a writer has always been writing very human characters in unusual situations, like Sword Cane Lal and Nyateneri from The Innkeeper’s Song. Beagle understands that the more spectacular the circumstances, the more grounded and fleshed out the characters and their interactions with each other need to be.
However, Bianchi’s idyllic pastoral life is soon to be thrown into turmoil when he discovers that the unicorn is pregnant. This is significant in that although Bianchi has helped deliver offspring for his farm animals before, the last time he delivered a child was when he delivered his wife’s baby which was stillborn. Although the foaling is a success, this weighs heavily on his mind and explains much of his actions and his need to push others away and live in isolation. At one point the farmer goes to see the local fortune teller, who is as entertaining a quack as you would expect her to be until she says to Bianchi “Your wife did not leave you because the baby died [...] she left because you did.” The tragedy of our protagonist is in his silence and isolation but also in his actions or lack of them – he writes his poems only to hide them, he pushes people away because he doesn’t feel like he can form a bond with others without hurting them, or perhaps just as badly to take the chance of being hurt himself.
However, the intrusion of the spectacular and preternatural incites a budding romance between the farmer and Romano’s sister Giovana when she witnesses the unicorn and is the beginning of Bianchi being dragged out of his isolation and back into the social world that he had previously closed himself off from. Unfortunately, once the secret is out word soon spreads of the unicorn’s presence in Bianchi’s poor little farm, bringing with it media attention, animal poachers, animal rights protestors and worst of all the dreaded local mafia, the ’Ndrangheta.
“But he was angry – angry and frightened by the realization of his own helplessness in the face of that twenty-first century that would inevitably be invading the life he had built for himself –no, the life that I have settled for – here with the trees and the animals and the earth.”
While media attention eventually dies down, the ’Ndrangheta remain a real and present threat. When Bianchi refuses to sell his land to the ’Ndrangheta, things quieten down, and then they escalate. This local mafia is a very real and threatening manifestation of everything that Bianchi feared and sought to hide from in his hermitage, but also a very real consequence of the secret of the unicorn and her child coming to the fore. As the unicorn is dragged into the light, so by extension is Bianchi. These two relics of a bygone age are forced to confront the twenty first century head on and all that it entails. But even when the tension ramps up there’s still a lot of great character beats here, with everyone from Romano, to a minor crime lord and many others, some of whom Bianchi hasn’t talked to in years implore him to sell his land, flee the country, and to do anything to save himself. Bianchi may have closed himself off from the world, but the world hasn’t closed itself off from him, and it’s just beautifully handled here, the looming shadow of the ’Ndrangheta contrasted with the love and concern of old friends and neighbours.
I’ll spare you spoilers about what happens at the end, but I will say that it ends in a way that is both epic and mock epic, both grounded and surreal and it has one of my most favourite character interactions that involves two people who are talking about something else to mask the fact that they’re actually talking about themselves since the closing lines of dialogue in Serenity between Mal and Zoe. In Calabria in many ways feels like Beagle writing in dialogue to The Last Unicorn – the unicorns in both books are hunted, and are a rare sight because they are presumably the last of their kind. But whereas The Last Unicorn focuses on how humans affect the unicorn, In Calabria focuses on how the unicorn affects humanity and specifically, Bianchi. The book is less reminiscent of the bizarreness of Jorge Luis Borges and more in common with later magic realists such as Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami. But if I were to summarise In Calabria in a mere few sentences, I couldn’t sum it up better than Henry David Thoreau does when he talks about solitude and solitary life in his book Walden:
“However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is.”