Review: In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle

Tachyon Publications, LLC., 2017.

Let it be said up front that Calabria is a region of southern Italy, in the “toe of the boot.” There on a hillside farm lives Claudio Bianchi, alone except for his old dog Garibaldi, his old goat Cherubino, and three cats: Sophia, Mezzanotte, and Third Cat, which is more position than name, since Bianchi had never learned her real name, “as one must do with cats.” Other than twice-weekly visits from young Romano the postman, It’s a hard and lonely existence, which suits Bianchi just fine. The farm gives him enough of a living to live, plus time to read and sometimes write poetry, which he mostly keeps to himself. All that changes when the unicorn visits his scraggly vineyard for reasons that Bianchi cannot fathom:

“He would indeed  have taken it for an illusion, if Cherubino, anarchist and atheist like all goats, had not remained kneeling for some time afterward, before getting to his feet, shaking himself and glancing briefly at Bianchi before  wandering off. Bianchi knew the truth then, and sat down.”

He writes a poem about the unicorn, but the visitation proves to be more than a one-time miracle. The unicorn returns, and is apparently searching for something. The truth finally dawns on Bianchi: the unicorn is pregnant, and what she’s searching for is a place to have her foal…fawn? Bianchi isn’t sure. But when she makes her nest in a hollow near his apple orchard, the farmer begins keeping vigil, and it is there that Giovanna, the postman’s sister covering his route that day, finds Bianchi, and finds the unicorn. Soon she’s in on the conspiracy of silence, and essentially in the unicorn’s service as much as Bianchi, though he might not have put it that way, already is. The unicorn eventually has a difficult birth, and Bianchi is there to assist, and all is well, for a while.

Some secrets are impossible to keep, and the unicorn and her newborn are among them. It’s not long before reporters, animal rights activists, and unicorn hunters are snooping around and sneaking through and trampling  Bianchi’s farm, but the real danger arrives with the monster, a monster in human form, as the worst ones tend to be.

So that’s the plot. Trivial things, plots, or would be if one didn’t need a way to lay out what does and must happen in the course of the story. The bones, if not the flesh. Seldom if ever what the story is about. At its heart, In Calabria is a love story, and I don’t simply mean the contentious but real affection Bianchi and Giovanna come to feel for each other. There’s also healing. In time we learn why Bianchi is alone in the first place, and the tragedy that put him there. In Calabria is also a story of awe and wonder, and all that contained in a novella-sized package. It contains multitudes. Yes, I know. The monster must be defeated, the dangers averted, or else the story is about something else entirely. So let’s leave that part for the reader, where it rightly belongs.

If you already know Peter Beagle’s work, and you haven’t read this book, I don’t know what to tell you, other than stop wasting time and get to it. I’m already mad at myself for waiting so long to do the same. If  you don’t know Beagle’s work, then correct this error as soon as possible. Start with The Last Unicorn, or A Fine and Private Place, or The Folk of the Air, or The Innkeeper’s Song or...well, I really doubt it matters. No writer is for every reader, but if Peter Beagle isn’t for you, then I can only offer my sincere condolences. But it’s well worth your time to find out.






Things I Like, Part 2

Peter Beagle, or rather his work, as he is not a “thing” but a living author. I would probably like him as a person aside from said work, but we’ve never met and at this rate we’re likely never going to do so. I haven’t been to a convention since World Fantasy in Austin, lo these several years ago. Peter Beagle was there, so I did get to hear him read, which was a treat. Frankly, I’ve never read a Peter Beagle story I didn’t like, and the ones I love, I love a lot.

Of course, you can’t discuss Beagle without a mention of The Last Unicorn, the story of a greedy king who imprisons all the unicorns in the world for his own enjoyment, except one, and Schmendrick, the walking trainwreck of a wizard and the world-worn former young maiden Molly Grue who attempt to aid that unicorn on her quest to find and free the others. It’s a novel, and extended metaphor, and a deserved classic. If you think you wouldn’t like this just from my description, you’re only hurting yourself.

While I’m on his early work, there is a couple more I should mention because they don’t come up as often. The first is A Fine and Private Place, Beagle’s debut novel. The title, obviously, is from the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” (“The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace…”) Most of us sat through this in English Literature, but I can almost hear the wheels turning in Beagle’s head “Oh yeah?” And so, A Fine and Private Place, with not one but two sets of lovers and potential lovers, on this side of the grave and on the other, written, so the story goes, when the author was only nineteen. So put a sock in it, Marvell. The other is I See By My Outfit, a non-fiction account of Beagle and a friend’s cross-country trip on motor scooters. Rather like On the Road, if it had been done by someone less self-absorbed than Kerouac.

Since novels weren’t his primary source of income for most of his career, they tended to be widely spaced. The Folk of the Air and The Innkeeper’s Song. The first revolves around a woman who may be an immigrant goddess and her affect on an organization rather like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I was a member at the time I read this, probably one reason other than it’s a fun book that it has stuck with me. The Innkeeper’s Song is…well, it’s about a group of former students of a magician trying to help that magician defeat another former student who’s gone power mad, or maybe just mad. They don’t have a chance, of course, but why let that stop them? As with all of Peter Beagle’s work, it’s about a lot of other stuff too, only some of which you’ll probably notice. I know I never get the half of it no matter which book I’m reading, but that’s all right.

After somewhat of a hiatus, Beagle re-emerged onto the fantasy scene in a big way just a few years ago, starting with a sort of sequel to The Last Unicorn. The story was “Two Hearts,” a novelette which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. You can find it in The Line Between, which I’ve already talked about here, so I won’t go into that again, but it does bring us around to Beagle’s story collections. My first Beagle collection, and in some ways still my favorite, is The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle, because it contains two of my all-time favorite novellas by Beagle, “Lila the Werewolf,” and “Come, Lady Death.” In the first, a man discovers that his girlfriend is a werewolf. In another’s hands this might have been a sort of shock/horror thing, but of course Beagle is way too deep a writer for that. It’s what happens after he makes that discovery that’s the interesting part. Likewise “Come, Lady Death,” is about a high society matron who decides that her upcoming ball simply would not be complete without one very special guest, Death. So she devises a perfectly logical but callous way to invite said august personage. If you’re expecting the result to be Beagle’s take on “The Masque of the Red Death,” think again. And yet it manages to be both beautiful and horrifying anyway. Full props. Really, you can’t go wrong with a Beagle collection. There’s The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances, which I talked about here, and We Never Talk About My Brother, any of which would be a good place to start. I’m not sure there is a wrong place.

If you haven’t already, just start.