Peter S. Beagle, author of the classic fantasy “The Last Unicorn,” returns to unicorns in his novella-length book, “In Calabria.” Set in rural Italy, Beagle’s book explores how people react to the supernatural intruding peacefully into their rural lives.
Claudio Bianchi, an aging farmer on a forsaken hillside farm in Calabria, is visited by a unicorn. For reasons of its own the Unicorn keeps reappearing on his farm. At first Bianchi is apprehensive of the majestic and beautiful creature, wondering if it carries a message or warning for him. Certainly the creature itself has made a mistake to have chosen Bianchi’s dilapidated farm over a beautiful seaside vista. But soon he accepts that his supernatural visitor is there for a purpose.
Bianchi also is a poet, though his poetry, like his life, is for his eyes only. The strange and striking unicorn’s presence lights a fire in his poetry, and Bianchi finds subtle changes in himself. His distant neighbors, including a young woman Giovanna, notice something different about Bianchi, and become curious about what he is doing on his farm.
Bianchi knows that if it became generally known that his farm harbored a supernatural unicorn, it would interrupt his quiet life. Though Bianchi tries to suppress the creature’s presence, eventually word leaks out and Bianchi’s life is filled with complications that bring danger, stress and richness.
As Bianchi becomes aware of the unicorn’s purpose on his farm, he wrestles with the pain in his own past, a potential romantic relationship, the Italian mafia and the reduced expectations he has for his own life.
For all his grumpiness and lack of direction, Beagle’s stubborn protagonist is a compelling character. Beagle shows how Bianchi has retreated from the world with consequences that are a secret even to Bianchi.
“The universe and Claudio Bianchi had agreed long ago to leave one another alone, and he was grateful, knowing very well how rare such a bargain is, and how rarely kept. And if he had any complaints, he made sure that neither the universe nor himself ever knew of them.”
Beagle’s descriptions of Bianchi’s bucolic life remind me of J.R.R. Tolkien describing life in the Shire in “The Lord of the Rings.” There is magic and romantic dignity in Bianchi’s quiet life. There is more magic and romantic dignity in this novel, brimming with wisdom.