by Domenico Starnone
translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri
Europa Editions, 191 pages
reviewed by Jeanne Bonner
What happens when something occurs to change the view you’ve had of your life? Of yourself? Something that decisively alters the perspective on a life rich in success and honors?
That’s one of the dilemmas facing Daniele Mallarico, a masterful illustrator who is the main character of Italian writer Domenico Starnone’s newest novel, Trick.
A powerful change of perspective happened to the book’s translator, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who decamped to Rome in 2012 a dozen years after winning America’s highest prize for fiction, the Pulitzer, and immersed herself so deeply in Italian that she only wanted to write in that language. Indeed, a week after she arrived, she wrote her final sentences of English in her diary. Three years later, in that same diary, an excerpt of which was published in an Italian literary journal, Nuovi Argomenti, she faced the terrifying prospect of leaving Italy and a life immersed in Italian. “I think of the distance about to form between me and this place,” she wrote, “and I succumb to depression.” She held on to the language, however, and has published works of fiction and nonfiction in Italian. In her 2015 book In Other Words (which she wrote in Italian and which was translated into English by Ann Goldstein), Lahiri chronicles her romance with Italian, revealing “a sense of rapture” in Rome.
For Lahiri, her new perspective, having learned Italian, amplifies an already rich literary and creative life. That is not, however, the case for the narrator of Trick, who now sees the first such “act” of his life with suspicion.
Perhaps in another book review, all of this would be an unnecessary aside, given the literary pedigree of Starnone, the author of thirteen other works of fiction and a winner of Italy’s top fiction prize, the Strega. But here, one could argue Lahiri’s sense of rapture feeds her skills in translating the novel, the second Starnone work she’s brought into English. The first, Ties, which came out in 2017, was, as she told The New Yorker, her first foray working in English again, after “barricading [herself] behind Italian.”
Her sense of rapture, paired with her own profound ability to evoke fictional characters and situations, helps her fully inhabit the voice of the narrator, Daniele, the illustrator. Amidst a difficult work project for a new client, Daniele goes to watch his four-year-old grandson, Mario, in the Naples home where he himself grew up but has long since left behind. It’s the house his daughter has inherited and where she lives with her husband and Mario. The plot concerns the days Daniele spends with Mario—hours that, as any parent of a preschooler will tell you, are filled with small joys followed by moments of tension, not to mention showdowns of all kinds.
But that may be truer here not only because of the crossroads Daniele is about to face but also because Mario’s parents are fighting ceaselessly. They have asked Daniele to watch Mario so they can attend a work conference where the narrator presumes they will continue their arguing, unimpeded. Hence tension simmers just beneath the surface. Mario is by turns playful and adoring, willful and troublesome. While keeping Mario occupied, Daniele is trying to complete sketches for the work project, an illustration of a Henry James ghost story, “The Jolly Corner.”
Lahiri has expertly reproduced the voice of the narrator—and his pull on the reader, who feels the tug from the very first sentences of Starnone’s many-layered work, where one aspect of the novel echoes another.
Lahiri has expertly reproduced the voice of the narrator—and his pull on the reader, who feels the tug from the very first sentences of Starnone’s many-layered work, where one aspect of the novel echoes another. Starnone opens the novel in the voice of Daniele, “One evening Betta called, crankier than usual, wanting to know if I felt up to minding her son while she and her husband took part in a mathematics conference in Cagliari.” Daniele goes onto to say that after living in Milan for some time, “the thought of decamping to Naples” in fact “didn’t thrill me.” Just as Daniele returns to his childhood home—a place filled with memories, which is to say ghosts—the character in the short story he’s been asked to illustrate is also experiencing a homecoming. In the 1908 story by James, a man named Spencer returns to his New York home after many years and finds himself haunted by a ghost. Specifically, the ghost of the person he would have been had he remained in New York and become a businessman.
While ghosts in the form of memories figure prominently in the novel, Starnone has a light touch. With an intimate tone that almost evokes a diary, he informs us a handful of times that Daniele’s father gambled away the family’s money when he was a child. In one of the more emotionally-searing lines, Starnone writes, “I recalled how every second of life in that house, in that neighborhood, was signaled by my father’s fingers on playing cards, by his rapacious need for a thrill that drove him to jeopardize our very survival.” He adds, “I fought with all my might to separate myself […] to prove that I was different.” The effect of this information is chilling—it gives us a window into one of the signal events that shaped Daniele as an individual—but Starnone reveals it with subtlety.
There’s another detail revealed in an understated way that nonetheless has profound implications. Daniele is a widow, and his wife’s death he’s been coming to grips with how he engineered the isolation required of his art to shield him from other aspects of his life. It emerges, in fact, that his wife betrayed him—repeatedly, right from the early years of their marriage, but he was too preoccupied with work to catch on until after her death. Combined with the revelations about his father, this information, shared in a few deft strokes, allows Starnone to give us the pertinent parameters—of Daniele’s life, and of what’s really at stake in an otherwise prosaic visit to his grandson.
What was and what could have been. The novel’s action culminates with two mirror events: the grandson reproduces an illustration that’s strikingly—for Daniele, alarmingly—adept and then later he plays a trick on his grandfather that risks some significant consequences (one of several compelling ways that the title is employed in the book).
But we’re not talking about child’s play. With Starnone at the helm, we’re wandering among the thorniest of emotional thickets: the land of fathers and sons. We’re also talking about self-worth, about how we spend our time, which is to say, how we spend our lives. We’re talking about a moral reckoning with the choices we make as humans. As the author puts it in an interview released by the publisher, Europa Editions, “That which we have become or not become, while it may please us at first, can cause melancholy, soon revealing itself to be insidious, dangerous, terrifying.”
With Starnone’s narrative unfolding largely in Naples, a part of the city’s essential character is unpacked for us in the course of the novel. For example, Daniele speaks of the rage (“la raggia”) felt by many of the people surrounding him as a child, fellow Neapolitans who found themselves living in cramped, impoverished quarters and believing there to be no escape hatch. Daniele does escape—physically, at least—and he winds up leading a fulfilling life as a commercial artist that contrasts with his parents’ lives and with many of his childhood peers.
Yet back in Naples to watch his grandson, some of the old anger resurfaces. The book dwells heavily on disappointment and on the resentment that breeds when one feels mistreated—tricked, you could say. In Daniele’s case, he is seething with anger that the younger publisher of the Henry James work has rebuffed draft illustrations he sent before departing for Naples. As Starnone writes, Daniele imagines barging into the publisher’s office and spitting in his eye for criticizing not just “those illustrations, no, but the work of a lifetime. A pity that the season of rage had died. I’d smothered it long ago.”
Some of the novel’s most evocative passages reside in the author’s ruminations about Naples. At one point, for example, while Daniele and Mario are out for a stroll, they stop for a drink at a dark, dirty coffee bar. Starnone meditates on the way Neapolitans talk, often employing a savage tone that can undermine even the most innocuous comments. As Daniele muses, “Only in this city […] were people so genuinely inclined to come to your aid and so ready to slit your throat.” This is the Naples many American readers have come to know through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels that begins with My Brilliant Friend.
In this scene, Daniele chats with the proprietor of the bar who reveals at one point that he, too, had a talent for illustration as a young man but he notes it “passed,” which Starnone writes, makes it sound “like an illness.” As they prepare to leave, Daniele comments, “I felt that he was looking at me with hostility, as if, just when I was paying and leaving a tip, I was secretly robbing him of something.” The line reminded me of a Sicilian friend who once told me he hated to receive a compliment because it was simply a way for someone to take him for a fool. This is a world in which every gesture is suspect.
As these ruminations swirl in the air, grandfather and grandson get into a standoff that Daniele says snatches “the notion I’d had of myself.” To say more would reveal a critical plot turn but suffice it to say Starnone deals gracefully with the implications of something—or someone—snatching away the notion one has of himself.
The book includes an unusual appendix, a diary that contains Daniele’s thoughts and sketches for “The Jolly Corner.” And it reminds us of the narrator’s pull, which reflects Starnone’s skill at creating a completely believable character who seems to live and breathe.
Starnone’s prose is in good hands under Lahiri’s capable guidance. As someone who translates from Italian and who reads a lot of translations, I found myself immersed from the first sentence of Lahiri’s translation. Arguably that’s no surprise since Lahiri is a masterful English prose stylist. Yet it bears noting that her rendition is fluent and fluid and her grasp of idioms is enchantingly astute. To give a minor though typical example from an early section of the novel, Starnone writes that Daniele was “in difetto sia come padre che come nonno,” which Lahiri translates as his being “wanting as a father and a grandfather.” That use of the word “wanting” is an inspired choice, colloquial and yet striking some kind of high tone that reproduces the original cadence.
Lahiri does such an exquisite job of rendering Starnone’s prose and in particular his reflections on Naples that there’s almost nothing to snap the reader out of her reverie.
Lahiri does such an exquisite job of rendering Starnone’s prose and in particular his reflections on Naples that there’s almost nothing to snap the reader out of her reverie. Indeed, for me, the only time was when I encountered the name of the maid character: “Sally.” In Italian, the letter “y” rarely appears and in the original Italian text, the maid’s name is rendered as “Salli.” The appearance of the name “Sally” reminded me that the book I was reading was meant for English-speaking audiences, as opposed to a book in English about an Italian narrator named Daniele who talks about Naples. But that was about the only time I remembered.
The work of literary translators can be viewed as vital, especially given the forces of nationalism today, so it is no small matter that someone of Lahiri’s caliber has joined the ranks. For Starnone and his readers, it means his novel Trick arrives in English in mesmerizing form.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Connecticut. She is the 2018 winner of the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, given by PEN America. Her essays have been published by The New York Times, CNN Travel, Literary Hub and Catapult. She studied Italian literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.