A Neapolitan Grandfather on the Edge: Domenico Starnone’s “Trick”

By Ilaria de Seta

Domenico Starnone’s book Trick (Scherzetto, 2016) is a slim novel. Tidily divided into three chapters and several subsections, it starts in medias res and provides spatial and temporal points of reference. The protagonist Daniele Mallarico, a 70-year old illustrator currently working on Henry James (a small autobiographical trace on Starnone’s part), who has lived in Milan for 20 years, will spend a few days in Naples with his four-year old grandson Mario while his daughter and her husband are away. The time frame is very short and it is given on the second page: Betta and her husband Saverio, both mathematicians, will be away at a conference in Cagliari, “from the 20th to the 23rd of November.” 

Daniele is the novel’s first-person narrator and its protagonist. His internal voice is worried and he shares his thoughts with his readers, but when he speaks he expresses himself in a different way, so that other characters are less informed than the readers. With his interlocutors he seems to be in control of his speech, which comes out sharp, and rather aggressive at times, but overall correct and polite. Aristoteles said “the wise man doesn’t say everything he thinks, but thinks everything he says.” As a result of his intellectualized and excessive self-awareness, the narration of the facts is interconnected with, and inextricable from, the narrator-protagonist’s emotional views. 

In the first line Betta is described as “crankier than usual” to imply that Betta is usually nervous, or that she is perceived in that way by her apprehensive septuagenarian father. He gives the impression that he feels pity for his daughter, “a pure suffering matter,” and expresses intolerance towards his son-in-law Saverio, affected by “existential unhappiness” (or “frustration,” according to the translator, Jhumpa Lahiri). Among the few objectively unpleasant situations, one stands out: before the conference, Saverio tells Daniele about Betta’s presumed infidelity. Betta’s father listens to Saverio attentively and remains calm (he is always balanced in his actions), but the confession reinforces his bad opinion of his son-in-law. In his Manichean but acute vision,  Betta and Saverio go to the conference “to evade the eyes and ears of their child and fight hard” (or, “fight without control,” in Italian). 

Early on in the novel Daniele arrives at Betta’s house, which is also his own family home, “the house in the house.” On that first night, in the middle of the first chapter, he wakes up at 2.10 am. With a pressing anaphora —“I drew” is repeated six times in one page— he sketches his old home, the one he grew up in, implicitly  marking the differences with the new restructured apartment in which he finds himself now. Description and narration are interconnected so that small Proustian recalled memories of the narrator’s childhood are placed in the old house but then he realizes that he has conflated the two time frames (the house of the past and the restructured house in the present) by drawing Betta in a pose like his mother’s: “Betta had turned out marvellously. I’d put her in the kitchen sixty years ago, in a pose my mother often struck, as I did.” Oedipus is in a festal mood.

Then Daniele plays the double role of father and grandfather, the latter role being way more difficult according to his comments. Betta talks to her son, on more than one occasion, to inform her father about sensitive matters (“words that were clearly instructions both for him and for me”): “Grandpa is not going anywhere, you’ll be together, just the two of you, for the next few days; you’ll be sharing your room with him.” The internal reaction of the protagonist-narrator is negative and disproportionate to the situation: “That for me was an awful news.” The protagonist’s discomfort is clear from various sentences in indirect free speech which punctuate the narration, such as “it was an interminable evening.” Before leaving, Betta gives the house keys to her father. This handover is emphasized by the solemn promise: “making me swear that I would never forget them.” Every single event in Daniele’s mind gets blown out of proportion. He anticipates other people’s reactions, imagining them always negative, but the family is kind to him, showing affection, which is an essential ingredient of this story. The intergenerational affection disguised and threatened by the narrator’s distorted emotional perception is a major theme of this novel. 

While the protagonist’s relationship with his beloved, unfaithful wife (and his own erotic liaison with Mena) remain in the background, along with Saverio’s jealousy towards Betta, the foreground is taken by the scurvy grandfather and his know-it-all four-year-old grandson. Bit by bit, even before the parents leave, Daniele develops a growing intolerance towards Mario whose main fault is to be pedantic like his father.

The child is prescriptive and follows the rules, and the grandfather is a total anarchist. Daniele is always astonished at Mario’s ability in practical matters, which he repeatedly dismisses as pedantry, but the astute reader understands that the grandchild’s actions are meant to have a remedial function towards Daniele’s lack of pragmatism, something that will become clear at the end of story: “Imagination prevailed over a sense of reality, even as an adult I’d never know how to participate actively in the practical side of life.”

When Salli, the cleaning lady with an English Italianized name, arrives, the picture is almost complete. A solid Neapolitan presence, the housekeeper is the person who keeps the place organized and sets the rules for normality, maintaining the precarious balance between the old artist and the child. The “old surpuss” is perceived as antagonistic by the protagonist: she addresses him without the courtesy form “Lei” and even calls him “grandpa,” to which he immediately reacts: “Don’t call me grandpa, I am not your grandpa, and I don’t feel like Mario’s grandpa, either.” 

More characters are to be found on the ground floor of the “palazzo”:  a family that is the exact opposite of Mario’s, showing the disenfranchised side of Naples and expressing a settled social anger against the wealthy one. The city of Naples is a strong presence, not only as a memory of the past or as a background, but also in other ways. On the one hand, with its language (masterful is the disquisition on the Neapolitan “raggia,”  rage, which is different, as the narrator explains, from the common anger); and on the other, as the setting for the grandfather and grandson’s strolls to the modern underground ending up once in a filthy “bar.”  Here a father and his daughter embody another Neapolitan-speaking couple, using dialectal expressions such as “quantebellill” (translated as “what a cuty”), and extremely welcoming despite the huge social gap: “Only in this city – I thought – were people so genuinely inclined to come to your aid and so ready to slit your throat.” 

The plot affords us two significant highlights. 

The first one provides an explanation of Daniele’s difficult (almost borderline) personality, with a real climax that arrives half-way through the novel: the “nonno” tells us about his growing up in Naples and the huge effort he made not to adhere to any of the behaviours surrounding him – the violent, the sexually devious, the frustrated and falsely indulgent, among others. This continuous and strenuous internal tension is an implicit explanation for the anger, the aggressive attitude, and the penchant for an overtly analytic perception of every single moment (like being in darkness, which puts him in a terrified state). 

The second highlight is an episode that turns around the relationship between grandfather and grandson, leading us all the way to a happy ending. All the impatience and presumption of the grandfather are subverted via an episode rife with suspense and emotional tension as the plot unravels in the last chapter. The balcony – a “long thin slab over the grey patch of asphalt,” recalled in an effective prolepsis as “a place that used to frighten my mother” so that she would never go there while the protagonist as a child would play the reckless fool – is the perfect setting for Daniele’s cathartic panic attack. The balcony door becomes an unbreakable barrier that separates little Mario, lonely inside the well-appointed apartment equipped with modern comforts and potentially dangerous tools, and the old shabby protagonist stuck outside, a frightened prey to the wind, the cold and the rain. Finally, thanks to little Mario’s industrious ability, the balcony door is opened, the crisis is over, and Daniele’s hallucinatory state clears away, like the sky after a storm. The celebration of happiness – grandpa and toddler dancing under a warm shower – emphasizes the old man’s appreciation of the child, and with it a remorseful recognition of his own hubris

But the subsequent conciliatory ending – the family recomposed with everyone happy and proud in their role – doesn’t really persuade the reader, who is aware of the narrator’s deepest beliefs about human sexuality: “Sexual pleasure, uncoupled once and for all from reproduction, which was its original purpose, continuously leaked liquids all over the planet, in every season. And there was no controlling it, whatever had to happen, would happen, no matter what; it was the careening of bodies that ruthlessly wiped out wives, husbands, children, affections, economy.”

As readers go through the pages of this contemporary Neapolitan family tale they encounter words imbued with great psychological depth when describing the thoughts and sensations of the different actors, filtered by the mind of the artist protagonist. There is humour in the narrator’s way of summing up in dialect certain situations and human types, which he relates to Naples’ special milieu, the city in which he was brought up and to which he belongs. The language articulates affection, anxiety, and vivid “hallucinations” (as the narrator calls them). And yet, Starnone succeeds in sprinkling the physical sensations and general mental distress experienced by the protagonist with a pinch of humour, making the reading pleasantly deep and light at the same time. It is refreshing to read such a realistic contemporary vision of the world, linked to its geographical place of origin as if via a thick umbilical cord, not unlike Abraham B. Yehoshua’s novels about Israel, Haifa, Tel Aviv: highly representative of their geo-cultural identity but universal for their ability to be understood, enjoyed and appreciated, I believe, by a borderless readership. 

As an Italian native speaker who grew up in Naples, I could not help noticing a feature of Lahiri’s English translation which privileges, at times, an informal, conversational register over the distinctive style of the Italian author with his sombre, dramatic register lightened by a sprinkle of humour. Enjoyable and full of life like his earlier novel Ties (2014) and the powerful later novel Trust (2019), Trick confirms the special gift Starnone has for sharply depicting, each time from a different angle, our contemporary reality.

Ilaria de Seta holds a MPhil in Italian Studies from University College Cork and a Doctorate in Modern Philology from the University of Naples, Federico II. Until 2018 she worked for the Université de Liège. She is Associate Researcher at the KU Leuven and Visiting Professor at Università dell’Aquila. She specializes in modern and contemporary literature with a focus on the space dimension (libraries, domestic spaces, landscapes). Her latest publications are on Federigo Tozzi and Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, and her current research is on doctors and patients in 19th- and 20th-century European literature.

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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