Below, the opening and closing passages of "Art And The Spirit," the eleventh chapter of Robert Coover's 1991 Pinocchio In Venice. This elaborate, highly profane philosophical fantasy is a direct sequel to Carlo Collodi's original serial fable and also, Coover being Coover, refers extensively to Disney's version, and any reader looking to look further into this book would be well advised to become conversant again with both of those works (NYRB put out a good translation of Collodi a couple of years back). In Coover's novel, the real live boy our hero became at the end of both tellings is now an ancient and celebrated academic—Professor Pinenut, the "he" of the passages below—who has returned to Venice ("The Island of Busy Bees" in Collodi) to complete a magnum opus entitled Mamma. Think about it. At any rate, all manner of disasters befall the already deeply melancholy fellow almost immediately upon disembarking at Santa Lucia. (Do the cat and the fox return? They certainly do.) To make matters worse, he's turning back into wood. "Art And The Spirt" sees Our Hero deposited for safekeeping at San Sebastiano, one of Venice's plague churches, featuring notable works by Paolo Veronese and Paris Bordone.
The monster fish that swallowed Jonah, sucking him up as a raw egg is sucked, was a pious creature devoted to virtue and orthodoxy, a kind of blubbery angel, conjured up by a God who liked to flesh out his metaphors. He—or she, the anatomy is uncertain, "belly" perhaps a euphemism—kept the runaway prophet dutifully in his or her belly or whatever for three days and three nights, long enough for Jonah to get a poem written and promise to do as he was told, and then, with a kind of abject courtesy, vomited him up, if that is not also a euphemism, on dry land. This is what Bordone's dark stormy picture, sitting like a mummy-brown bruise on the stone wall near the front entrance, is trying to show: Jonah disgorged like the metaphor's tenor emerging gracefully from its vehicle. He has often tried to see his own experience in the same light. In his now-lost Mamma chapter, "The Undigested Truth," for example, he has compared his brawling, boozing, recalcitrant father with the wicked Ninevites whom Jonah was reluctant to exhort, and from whom the prophet felt even more estranged once he'd saved them, has asked whether it was really truancy that landed Jonah in the fish's entrails, or whether God, like the Blue-Haired Fairy in her goat suit, might not somehow have lured the prophet into his crisis for reasons of pedagogy, and has indicated thereby how both his and Jonah's maritime adventures, often interpreted symbolically in Christian terms of baptism and rebirth, or else Judaic ones of exile and return (in Hollywood, quite literally: the raw and the cooked) might be understood more accurately—and more profoundly perhaps—as violent forms of occupational therapy.
Look on the bright side, he admonishes himself, beginning to wheeze. No more deadlines. No more biographical evidence to amass. No more words. Up on the Nun's Choir, there are representations of saints holding what he takes to be the instruments of their martyrdom. Some of them are holding books. He can appreciate this. A kind of plague, reading them maybe even worse than writing them, and no end to it. The terrible martyrdom of the ever-rolling stone. Saint Pinocchio. He and his father, a new heavenly host. And now, think of it, for the first time in his life, he does not have a book to write. That martyrdom at least is over. He is free at last. Which is probably just what they told poor Sebastian when they stripped his armor off him. "Free, my tortured chiappie!" he seems to be yelling, as they stuff him, up there beside the altar, into his second death. Trouble is, as martyrdoms go, the first was better than the second. This one hurts more and the compensations are more obscure. And this time: this time, no one's watching.
"Oh my Ga-ahd!" exclaims a loud nasal American voice, blowing in behind him. The professor makes a movement which to his own inner eye is that of shrinking down in his seat, though it may be invisible to others, as the intruder, stamping her feet and shaking herself audibly, comes blustering down the aisle. "Lookit this! Brrr! What a creepshow, man! Everybody's dead in here!"