Trick by Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri). Europa Editions. 191pp, $16.00.
Domenico Starnone is the author of thirteen works of fiction, one of which received Italy’s most prestigious prize, the Strega. Though the author began publishing in Italian in 1988, his first English translation—of his 2007 novel First Execution—wasn’t published until 2009. It was followed by Ties in 2017, and Trick marks his third full-length book translated into English.
Perhaps it is Starnone’s newness in the English-speaking world that explains why reviewers have tended to jump over his proven track record and speculate about his connections to the mysterious and pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante. Their rumored personal relationship is beside the point, but their books are similarly staggering—and the resemblances between their styles and subjects is hard to ignore.
Set in modern-day Naples, Trick follows seventy-something illustrator Daniele Mallarico as he decamps to the house where he grew up. There, he cares for his grandson Mario while the boy’s parents are at a conference. Only four years old, Mario possesses an uncanny breadth of vocabulary, and an unsettling grasp of how the world functions. While Mallarico struggles to navigate the peculiarities of the house where he grew up, Mario talks him through it with a precision beyond his age:
He proceeded to show me where the oranges were, where the juicer was, how to toast the bread so that it wouldn’t burn and emanate a foul odor that disgusted his father, which shelf held the bags of black tea and green, which cupboard contained the coffeepots, where the teapot was since the saucepan I’d chosen was inadequate, where the placemates were for setting the table. Oh, the quantity of things he said that morning, and with such command.
The grandson’s commands are at once funny and mildly infuriating, yet his precociousness dissipates when the grandfather asks questions that reveal the cracks in Mario’s knowledge—cracks that are carefully concealed by Mario’s parents, who are in the throes of a marital crisis. Mallarico’s daughter Betta had summoned him there to care for Mario so she and her husband could attend a conference, but when Mallarico arrives he realizes the couple is also escaping the house to work on their flailing marriage. At home, Betta and her husband dote on Mario, alternatively hissing at and ignoring each other in favor of openly praising the boy’s vocabulary, pragmatism, knowledge, and every move.
Though it’s unsettling, the boy’s practical qualities also amaze Mallarico, prompting him to remember that all his life, “Imagination prevailed over a sense of reality; even as an adult I’d never known how to participate actively in the practical side of life.”
Locked in his childhood home with a child, Mallarico is ostensibly at work on a set of illustrations for a book by Henry James, but his imagination runs wild, combing over the events of his life and questions of creativity and ambition. Alternating between long, interior monologues and external interactions with the boy, the book is reminiscent of Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, whose narrator is similarly locked inside an apartment with a child. Ferrante’s novels are not warm-hearted or simplistic tales of marriage or family or friendship, and Starnone’s Trick is not a warm-hearted tale of a grandfather and grandson who spend a few magical days by the Italian seaside. Instead, it feels as though the two are locked in a quiet quarrel, as the grandfather battles with the loss of his physical strength and the ghosts of his past.
Back in Naples, Mallarico grapples with who he was, who he wanted to be, and who he became: “There was a veritable nucleus in me that wanted to split apart and release, onto the world, forms never before seen.” But he questions whether his work ever lived up to that ambition, and now, because he is caring for the boy, he is unable to fully succumb to the flow of the creative process. He struggles with the illustrations and wonders if his work was ever exceptional or merely mediocre.
Characters revisiting their past is a recurring theme for Starnone. In Ties, Aldo and Vanda’s apartment is ransacked, causing him to look back on their marriage, including a period of time when Aldo left Vanda for another woman. Translator Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “In Starnone’s novel [Ties], life has to be reread in order to be fully experienced. Only when things are reread, reexamined, revisited, are they understood: letters, photos, words in dictionaries.” One might add illustrations and paintings to that list; in Trick, Mallarico is confronted with his earlier paintings, prompting him to examine why he pursued art in the first place, and what he might have done in its stead: “All my life I searched for good reasons for the excessive amount of time I dedicated to my art.” Those reasons were vague for years, hidden in the character’s subconscious or obfuscated by ego. The confluence of coming back to his parents’ apartment, his body failing him, and his grandson criticizing his every move makes him unable to ignore it any longer—“it” being the familial strife that led him to art, and away from Naples.
The book is a pleasure to read, no doubt due in part to its translator. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words in Italian in 2015 and translated Starnone’s novel Ties in 2017. The translator’s introduction to Trick is the perfect amuse-bouche to accompany the hearty entrée that is the novel:
The underlying theme, visited again and again in Starnone, is identity: Who are we, where and what do we come from, why do we become what we become? In Trick, more succinctly than ever, he examines heredity, the effects of coupling, what is handed down, what slips through the cracks. Identity, for Starnone, is never singular but multiple, never static, always in flux. Identity entails selection, assortment, happenstance, strategy, risk. This is why the principle metaphor in Trick is a deck of cards, which spawns the act of discarding: shunning possibilities, setting them aside, whittling down options in order to shape ourselves, our futures.
Daniele Mallarico’s father was a gambler. He played cards and had a “rapacious need for a thrill that drove him to jeopardize” the family’s survival. In order to survive, and to differentiate himself from his father and the violent men he knew in Naples, Mallarico left and became an artist. As Lahiri notes, he discarded and set aside one life and shaped himself into something else. He reflects, “I derived strength from the assumption that I was exceptional.” But was he? Nearing the end of that life, he comes back to the question Lahiri poses: “Who are we, where and what do we come from, why do we become what we become?”
Starnone’s writing balances physical spaces, corporeal spaces, and relationships, all situated within the psychological and psychosomatic landscape of its main character. Trick doesn’t neglect one in favor of the other; the novel moves through the apartment and the city of Naples, through the grandfather’s body as it ages, and through his relationships—to his daughter, her husband, the grandson. The prose fluidly shifts from dialogue to the grandfather’s thoughts to the physical surroundings of the apartment—painting and furnishing a rich narrative and perspective. Although most of the book takes place within the same rooms, there is a sense of expansiveness, as readers are led seamlessly through time and space—not just over the course of one man’s life, but through four generations of a family.
Remarkably, all of this fits into one book, clocking in at under two-hundred pages. It is equally remarkable and slightly unfortunate that this only the third of Starnone’s works to be translated into English. One feels grateful to read such an exquisite translation by an equally extraordinary author, so much so that it seems selfish to ask for more from the Starnone-Lahiri duo, especially when the complexities and nuances of Trick could be read and re-read for a lifetime.
Elizabeth de Cleyre is a writer, editor, consultant, and co-founder of Dotters Books. Her essays and reviews have been published in Ploughshares online, Brevity, The Review Review, Barstow & Grand, and ayris. Find her online at elizabethdecleyre.com and on Instagram at @___cede.
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