A Close Encounter with Domenico Starnone

By Andrew Martino

Beneath the shadow of the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House on Boston’s Beacon Hill, the Boston Athenaeum sits quietly on a shaded street. To the casual passerby, the building sticks out for its striking architecture in a city increasingly dominated by steel and glass. Inside, some of the most profound conversations in this already intellectually rich city take place. It was here in the spring of 2018 that I came to hear Domenico Starnone read from his most recent work, Trick. Accompanying him was Jhumpa Lahiri, the translator into English of his latest novels, Michael Reynolds, his publisher at Europa Editions in New York, as well as an English language interpreter whose name unfortunately I failed to catch. 

As I sat there, waiting for the event to begin, I looked around and was able to hear bits of conversation. The audience was a mix of generations, and the older people seemed to know one another, leading me to assume that these were the paid members of the Boston Athenaeum who took advantage of the readings and scheduled cultural events. Some, like myself, held Starnone’s latest book in their hands, while others discussed earlier books of his they had read. Indeed, the audience seemed to be made up of faithful Starnone readers and those who came to see what this Italian sensation was all about. Sitting a few rows back inside a standing-room-only hall, I watched as Starnone and his colleagues took the stage. Later, when I made my way to him in the signing line, I was once again struck by his welcoming, if somewhat shy, demeanor. We chatted for a moment or two, me in my hesitant Italian (I confess, I wanted to impress him) and he in his hesitant English. 

Encountering Starnone, either in person or through his books, is a lot like visiting the Boston Athenaeum. One would walk right past him on the street or fail to recognize him in a café, as he looks like a slightly distinguished university professor that one may fail to notice unless he stands in front of a lectern. There is an aura of modesty about him. Yet, his is the mind of a profound storyteller. In the recent wave of Italian literary sensations crashing onto English language shores, Starnone is a resonant voice in global literature who is now beginning to enjoy a much-deserved wider audience. 

Europa Editions began publishing English translations of Domenico Starnone’s work in 2009 with First Execution, translated by Antony Shugaar, and more recently and in quick succession, translations by Jhumpa Lahiri: Ties in 2017, Trick in 2018, and now Trust in 2021. Each novel is fairly short, almost a novella really, that can, and perhaps should, be read in one sitting. However, the novels are not disposable beach reads, but contain fully developed worlds that seek to probe the unconscious desires and situations of modern life. Starnone’s novels are wholly modern, in that they examine life and all its messiness from inner perspectives. And yet, they contain ideas that have defined what it means to be human since antiquity. 

First Execution begins as a straight-forward detective novel in which an aging professor, Domenico Stasi, hears that Nina, a former female student of his, has been arrested for “armed conspiracy.” Stasi reaches out to her family to express his concern. After a few more phone calls, and the student’s release, she asks to meet with him. The narrative follows all the tropes of a mystery as Stasi finds himself increasingly entangled in something he didn’t envision. Soon he is trapped and has become a major character in Nina’s story. But after three chapters Starnone breaks with that narrative and inserts himself as the author writing the novel we are reading. What follows becomes an entirely new story that incorporates the Stasi-Nina narrative. First Execution is a brilliant revelation of the creative process, one in which an author becomes a character, a reader, and then an author once again. 

The title, Prima esecuzione in Italian, may also suggest the act of writing a first draft, of executing ideas as they first appear in the imagination and transporting them to the page. The execution is the writing itself, in its nearly embryonic state: “A text really only defines itself during the second draft, when I read it again from beginning to end, and I understand where I really wanted to take it, and I toss out hypotheses, I rewrite, I polish and shape, I find more effective words” (170). Of course, we do not have the luxury of “second drafts” in life;  everything is a first draft, or a first execution, of thoughts and actions combined to make up who we are. 

Starnone’s next three novels present us with a fundamental change: they herald the beginning of Starnone’s relationship with Jhumpa Lahiri as his English translator. Lahiri, a powerful writer herself, has gradually expanded her own literary cosmos by learning Italian and establishing a fruitful relationship with Starnone. As Starnone himself says in the interview he gave for this special issue: “Jhumpa’s case is different. We have been friends for many years, she knows most of my books and I know hers. Her love for the Italian language and literary tradition totally absorbs her. She reflects upon and writes about translation. Ours is a bit of an anomaly in which the act of translating – perfectly autonomous as it should be – falls within the context of a wider and more intense relationship.”

The best translations are really collaborations between the writer and the translator. One thinks of Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s collaborative work with Borges. One thinks of Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman’s relationship with Gabriel García Márquez, of Ralph Manheim’s essential translations from the German, and of William Weaver’s extraordinary collaborations with a host of modern Italian writers. Then there is the translation dynamic duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Translation is perhaps the most careful form of reading in which one can engage. 

Lahiri’s translations realize Starnone’s intention to go deep into the male psyche and explore its relationship to everything around it. Ties tells the story of a marriage that has been rocked by infidelity, one that has consequences that could not be foreseen, even when the couple reunites. Told from three different points of view, the betrayed wife, the adulterous husband, and the daughter who recruits her brother in an act of revenge, Ties also explores the social roles we are forced to play inside the family unit. Perhaps the most damning testimony comes from the daughter when she states, “His real mistake was being unable to give us up for good. His mistake was that once you’ve taken action to hurt people profoundly, or kill or, in any case, permanently devastate other human beings, you can’t go back” (142). Although Aldo’s, the husband and father, actions are inexcusable, there is enough selfishness to go around. 

Trick is a story about a widowed grandfather who is tasked with caring for his grandson while his daughter and her husband attend an academic conference. The grandfather, Daniele Mallarico, is an ailing illustrator who has been commissioned to illustrate an edition of Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner.” The relationship that emerges between the grandfather and Mario, his grandson, is one that will test the limits of his remaining strength. I confess to often feeling exasperated with Mario. My own patience ran thin as quickly as Daniele’s. Moreover, Daniele is haunted by his past, and this haunting is manifested in the house of his youth, where his daughter and her family now live, and in the figure of Mario, who resembles his grandfather more than Daniele cares to admit. 

Trust examines the relationship between two people when a secret is shared and how that trust can make or break the relationship. Once the secret has been given away there is no going back. Once again, Starnone is examining what happens in relationships that are brought to a point of crisis based upon actions. Pietro and Teresa’s relationship never quite dissolves to the point of ending, and the first moment of crisis, an insignificant fight, is compounded by the sharing of the secret. “Teresa cautiously put forward a plan. She said: Let’s say I tell you a secret, something so awful that I’ve never even told it to myself, but then you have to confide something just as horrible to me, something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it” (16). Some secrets are too deep and dark to share. 

In each novel, Starnone also investigates how the roles we play in society are publicly and privately defined. In fact, this exploration of social roles and how those roles define or deconstruct who we are is what draws me to Starnone’s books time and again. One can always read his narratives for pure pleasure, but what often draws our attention while we are just enjoying ourselves, also leads to more meaningful re-readings of his works, and Starnone is an author whose works demand rereading. 

There are no heroes in the fictional cosmos of Domenico Starnone, but neither are there villains. Instead, Starnone gives his readers a cast of characters that are entirely human, which means deeply flawed. He also gives his readers a sense of the precariousness of our relationships to others and ourselves, for we are never completely solitary. Starnone’s fiction lays bare the world of the modern Italian bourgeoisie, thus allowing the reader to serve as a witness, and yes, as a judge. It is thanks to the English translations by Shugaar and Lahiri that Starnone’s fiction comes across to us as a powerful and informed pronouncement on the human condition in the modern world along with the existential crises that accompany that world. Moreover, there is no mistaking Starnone’s narrative voice, for it is driven by the needs and insecurities that plague the modern male. This is not to say that female readers will not sympathize or understand the situations in which Starnone’s characters find themselves. Quite the contrary. Instead, readers encountering Domenico Starnone’s fiction will find themselves caught up in the maelstrom of modern life, tossed about like so many leaves in a ceaseless wind. Starnone’s fiction keeps us tethered, albeit on a long line, to what it means to be thoroughly human.  

Andrew Martino is Dean of the Glenda Chatham & Robert G. Clarke Honors College at Salisbury University where he is also professor of English. He has published on Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Luigi Pirandello, among others. He is a regular reviewer for World Literature Today, and is currently finishing a manuscript on Paul Bowles.

Works Cited:

Starnone, Domenico. First Execution. Translated by Antony Shugaar. Europa Editions, 2009.

——-. Ties. Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Europa Editions, 2017.

——-. Trick. Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Europa Editions, 2018.

——-. Trust. Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Europa Editions, 2021. E-book.

This essay is part of the special issue Reading Domenico Starnone (October 2021), edited by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova.

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