Peter S. Beagle’s novella In Calabria is not a secondary-word fantasy. It is set in the twenty-first century, in a secluded village in the toe of the Italian boot, which nevertheless is noticeably a fictional world constructed by the author. Like the protagonist, the farm which is the major setting of the book seems to be stuck in a nineteenth-century pastoral fantasy. Which automatically puts me on my guard: is this idyllic Italian landscape a flimsy refuge from something darker—and has it been built to (falsely) shelter the reader or the main character?
Beagle goes to great lengths to emphasise the “reality” of his Calabria. Many isolated Italian words are sprinkled throughout the text, but it could have used a better copy editor, since this results in redundant phrasings such as “melanzani eggplant” (p. 11), “… ascoltame. Do you hear?” (p. 21), “awoltolli neri, black vultures” (p. 55) as well as mistakes often made by non-native speakers such as “teppistas” (p. 115)—the plural of “thug” is teppisti. These have a jarring effect on the reading experience and startle the reader out of their immersive experience of the story. Still, I can see what Beagle’s motivation was, and I appreciate it. We’re supposed to believe in this country, this Calabria, as a real, down-to-earth location; “poor, tired Calabria” (p. 25), where there is no place for fantastic, wonderful things, and certainly no place for miracles.
(Nevertheless, even before we know what this book is about, we can see unicorns everywhere—on the cover of the book as well as in between sections of text.)
The protagonist is Claudio Bianchi, who insists that he is averse to anything romantic, repeatedly emphasising details like his “large hands that had never been made for writing poetry” (p. 103). He does secretly write poetry, as everyone seems to know. He is portrayed as grumpy and anti-social, living on a small secluded farm like a hermit, and constantly trying to avoid close contact with other people. Disillusioned and seemingly convinced that everyone is better off far away from him (and vice versa), he sounds much older than his actual age of forty-seven. But as the inhabitants of the nearby village know, “He’s not quite as old as all that, you know” (p. 42).
Bianchi exists as a paradox, being both a farmer—good at caring for other creatures—and a dreamer—but only ever dreaming in secret, since he never shares his poetry with anyone. Beagle delights us with loving descriptions that show us that we are dealing with two realities here, one hidden under the surface of the other:
The lines around his eyes were as harsh as the land, far more likely to have been inscribed by weariness, anger, and bone-born scepticism than by laughter; but the large eyes themselves were deep brown, and their wary warmth should have had no place in the heavy-boned face of a Calabrese farmer possessed of no illusion that God and his angels ever came this far south. Bianchi had been embarrassed by his eyes on a few odd occasions. (pp. 8-9)
Then the unicorn appears in Bianchi’s vineyard. A real, dazzlingly white unicorn with cloven hooves and a long twisted golden-white horn that gives the dazzled Bianchi a sense of encountering the sublime. He acts like a boy who has fallen in love:
At some distance he was aware that he had eaten nothing all day, yet he was not at all hungry; in the same way he thought somewhere about opening the bottle of Melissa Gaglioppo that he had been saving most of the year for some unspecified celebration. (p. 16)
Triggered by the sight of the unicorn, decontextualized and unexpected existential questions bubble up in Bianchi:
Not much for forty-seven years, Bianchi. You have let this place melt away under you for such a long time. When you are gone, it will all melt back into the earth, and who will even know you were here? (p. 16)
It makes one wonder whether this is in a way a book about a mid-life crisis. Bianchi’s first attempts at understanding why the unicorn chose his farm seem to suggest something similar:
“What do you want of me? Are you here to tell me something?” The unicorn only looked calmly back at him. Bianchi fought to clear his throat, finally managing to speak again. “Am I going to die?” (p. 17)
Bianchi feels himself surrender to the unicorn, which he calls la Signora, and he knows that because of this, everything, his whole world, is irrevocably changed. Beagle draws a parallel to Dante here, which clearly puts the unicorn in the category of the sublime:
“But this much I do know. This I will tell you. Seeing her even one time would have changed the poetry forever, just as it happened to Dante, who saw Beatrice only once, at a May Day party when she was eight years old. I have seen her every day now for months—a magic, an enchantment, walking around my farm, eating weeds with my goat—and it has made me different. I cannot even say how different, different in what ways—only that I am.” (p. 42)
Enter Giovanna—who will, in time, become Gio to Bianchi, and finally Giobella. The postman’s little sister, a woman in her early twenties, Giovanna is filled with curiosity about Bianchi. She immediately realises that the unicorn is pregnant and has chosen Bianchi’s secluded orchard to give birth. It is obvious from the beginning that Bianchi and Giovanna are drawn to each other, but this story is about more than just watching them get beyond a series of defensive statements, such as “I am far too old for you” (p. 57).
The monsters in this story exist on two levels. The one that is announced as “the monster” is not a mythical beast. It’s a “venture capitalist”—“what else are the ‘Ndrangheta, really?” (as Bianchi thinks [p. 94], in what reads like a tentative echo of Hal Hartley’s Amateur). The ‘Ndrangheta don’t stop at delivering vague threats and killing cats, and even though various villagers turn up to warn Bianchi, he doesn’t seem frightened by them. At least, not at first, and not for his own sake.
The other monster in the story is of a different nature. Just like the father of the black baby unicorn, it lives behind the surface of things, and we only catch glimpses of it whenever a traumatic moment from Bianchi’s past flashes up in short allusions between the lines. “What should I know about fathers?” (p. 41), Bianchi flies in Giovanna’s face when she asks where the implicit male unicorn is in all this. And when the female unicorn finally gives birth, Bianchi runs out into the orchard to help and experiences a moment of panic: “[W]hat if the little one is strangling in the cord right now just the way don’t think about it the same way don’t ever think about it … ” (p. 46)
In one of my favourite scenes, Bianchi goes to see the local fortune teller, who is presented as an utter charlatan, always guessing at the wrong things and ultimately unable to see, sense, or predict unicorns. But the last thing she says to Bianchi when he is leaving in frustration turns out to be the truth he hadn’t come for, but the truth he needs to hear:
“Bianchi. Your wife did not leave you because the baby died.” There was a silence for a little, which was good, because Bianchi could not have comprehended language in that moment. Then: “She left because you did.” (p. 63)
Facing the combined threats of the ‘Ndrangheta, the media besieging the house (after news of the unicorns has leaked), and the thing from his past that he is unable to face, Bianchi’s first impulse is what I call ‘doing the Spider-Man,’ with unexpected consequences. Feeling powerless to protect everyone he cares about, he shouts at la Signora:
“Everyone I care about should just stay away from me! People—animals—everyone, all of you! Do what you want, but stay away!”
The unicorn did a strange thing then: she lowered her head and touched him with her horn, lightly, glancingly, on his left shoulder, almost as though she were making him a knight of some order whose sense and purpose he would never know. (p. 96)
But the character who first turns out more of a knight in shining armour is Giovanna. When Bianchi fails to make his customary phone call to her one night, she gets on her brother’s motorcycle—and turns up just in time to intercept some ‘Ndrangheta thugs delivering a beating to Bianchi in his bedroom, “raging among them through the broken door, swinging a tire iron like a flaming sword” (p. 99).
At a point in the story when every other hero would stock up on weapons and practice his fighting skills, Bianchi takes one look at his father’s old shotgun in the attic, then puts it back where he found it: “The shotgun meant nothing to him, nor he to it, but the tire iron had been brought for his protection by someone who loved him” (p. 106). And he does not send Giovanna away again.
And of course the ‘Ndrangheta come back. They tell Bianchi what every unicorn hunter in fantasy fiction tells the innocent maiden who can touch the unicorn: to lure it, so they can catch or kill it. Even though conventional roles are a bit mixed up here, the lines of good and evil seem ridiculously clean-cut, but “the monster” doesn’t need justification for wanting a unicorn trophy. It’s a unicorn, and that’s why he desires it. If it won’t come willingly, it will have to be shot. Interestingly enough, what feels most intense about this scene is that the ‘Ndrangheta separate Bianchi and Giovanna. Bianchi complies because a thug is holding a gun to his Giobella’s head.
And this is where all of the levels of the story collide, and it’s near impossible to tell, not reality from dream (because all of this is a fairy tale), but conscious from unconscious, inside space from outside space. And this happens in and through some of the best writing.
First Bianchi gets on the unicorn’s back. I don’t think that any character has ever done this in literary history, at least not in a story that sticks to the convention of the untouchable sublime unicorn. And as the roles of ‘knight’ and ‘maiden’ get irretrievably mixed up, so does all of ‘reality’ in response to Bianchi’s action.
The unicorn did not rear or buck like a horse, nor whirl in neck-snapping circles to throw him off; rather, she had become the spinning center of a spinning, melting universe, so that he could neither feel the jar of her hooves on the ground, nor be certain where any ground might truly be. Dazed and disoriented, he flattened himself along her neck; and somewhere as far away as Giovanna’s eyes, she screamed, and her son echoed her call. And Bianchi heard a third cry—a thin night-bird wail of hopeless terror and loss—and knew it for his own, and despaired. And still he hung on, insane and unyielding, with the unicorn’s mane whipping his eyes blind. (pp. 120-1)
This is when the male unicorn appears. The only attempt at description we get puts it in a colour category that can be best defined as vantablack: “Its blackness made both the word and the color meaningless” (p. 212). Words do not make sense anymore, and Beagle is not ‘doing the Lovecraft,’ attempting descriptions and failing. Instead, he lets the words slide to show us how the world or our experience of it slips from our grasp, how metaphors don’t match up anymore because describing one’s encounter with the sublime is impossible:
He closed his eyes, because the eyes of the black unicorn were too terrible to meet, and flailed his legs as wildly as an infant, struggling to dismount with no assurance that he would not plummet through immortality to shatter like a cheap watch on an earth centuries below. (pp. 121-2)
When whatever happens is over, Bianchi struggles through a transitional daze in between worlds, or realities, or states of consciousness, not quite sure whether he is alive or dead.
There was no sign of any unicorn. There was no sound to be heard at all, though he saw men of the ‘Ndrangheta seemingly attempting to speak to one another, their movements as impossibly tedious and jerky and wrong as even the lines of his own house. Almost all of them kneeling, they huddled in near-transparent gray-green clumps, looking past him, plainly not seeing him at all, but just as definitely staring after something … (p. 123)
What is it that departs? What took form in this dizzying event that nobody witnessed in detail? With a setup that tells us many times that the unicorns are real rather than symbolic and with no reliable evidence of what has transpired during this most unusual showdown, we are at a loss, unable to disentangle the physical and psychological elements of the black unicorn stallion. When “the monster” is found dead, his chest wound could have been caused by a long, twisted horn just as likely as by a bullet from his own men (the popular explanation). He just got too close to the unicorn and thus stepped into the firing line.
Symbolic or not, just like the female unicorn is a catalyst for Bianchi and Giovanna to get to know each other better (and discover that they are in love), the moment when Bianchi mounts the white unicorn and the black unicorn appears (does he make it appear?—Giobella suggests as much) is when he first lives in the present moment, when he first takes his life into his own hands. This is what frees him from his personal ghosts.
But Giobella, reunited with Bianchi, needs reassurance that he is himself. “Bianchi, the sun was behind you, and your shadow … it wasn’t your shadow … there was the horn … ” (p. 129).
Early on, the male unicorn is defined as the father. So if what happened was the father coming back to defend the mother and child, to set things right, maybe to settle a debt, this facilitates a very simple Jungian interpretation, in which the black unicorn is Bianchi’s shadow. (After all, his name is literally “white”, the opposite of black.) The moment in the past that he is unable to move beyond is all about his perceived failure as a father. By saving the unicorns (which may or may not be symbolic stand-ins for his absent wife and departed child—“I think perhaps she was hunted here from some other time” [p. 127]), he saves the ones he thought he had failed, and so act he redeems himself. Finally, he is free to move on.
In Calabria is a modern fairy tale. There are a handful of characters. There are clear-cut lines between good and evil. It is sentimental, but only in the sense that it is about emotions and acting on them. In the end, it’s an upside-down pastoral fantasy, in which for the longest time the constructed ‘reality’ serves to shelter the hero from the sublime, instead of vice versa, Sure, you can decide to read the white unicorn as an elusive dream, as a magical, pure, once-in-a-lifetime thing that you hope for, as ‘that one true love’. But the sheer dizzying mass of indescribable sublime that is the black unicorn stallion really doesn’t fit nicely into metaphorical boxes. Fairy tales are also always about the unconscious. The most effective monsters are the ones generated by our hidden fears—often not just hidden from the outside world, but from ourselves as well. Finally, it is a story about a man who is haunted, and who cannot forgive himself and move on, assign the past to the past and thus exorcise the ghosts. But life goes on, and while you’re busy coping with it, this is what happens: suddenly you find yourself opening your eyes in another time, in another self. Realising that in the meantime somebody has appeared who loves you, unconditionally, as you are. And together you’re stronger than anything.
And it does contain some really good writing.