On Bonds and Baggage: Domenico Starnone’s “Ties”

By Stiliana Milkova

Domenico Starnone’s Ties, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a chronicle of male infidelity and the subsequent unraveling of a marriage, a theme that ties the novel to a long-standing Western literary tradition. The plot is familiar enough: after years of a seemingly happy marriage, the husband abandons his wife and two children for a much younger woman. The wife’s life falls apart, she collapses physically and psychologically, reaches the depths of abjection, then emerges scarred but whole. In Starnone’s novel, the anatomy of abandonment is examined from three different points of view and in three distinct narratives – the wife’s, the husband’s, and the children’s.

The title, Ties, is suggestive: it’s a text about the making and breaking of bonds and about the baggage (physical and psychological) accumulated in the process. A cheating husband leaves his wife and children only to return years later to his family. After almost five decades of married life, the couple’s apartment in Rome is ransacked while they are on vacation and the past emerges from the debris of hoarded objects. Thus the past acquires material and spatial form, and husband, wife, and children must reckon with it as they sift through the physical reminders of repressed traumas. Ties, as the Italian scholar Daniela Brogi writes, is “not simply a novel about marital crisis, it is a text which enacts on its pages the imagined scenarios of failed self-realization upheld by the indestructible pillars of marriage.” Ties then is a novel about marriage as an institution and its relationship to self-perception and self-fulfillment, whether through the wife’s meticulous documentation of marital life, through the husband’s selfish pursuit of professional and sexual gratification, or through the children’s witnessing of the dissolution and eventual reconstitution of the family.

Starnone captures and dissects a vast array of concerns in a slim volume, neatly structured and tightly plotted, yet at the same time open-ended, without definitive answers or solutions. Ties, in other words, packs a lot of baggage into a small container while also leaving the container ajar, like Pandora’s box. And the novel, as Jhumpa Lahiri tells us in her passionate, insightful introduction to the text, brims with containers, both literal and symbolic (11). Its narrative form is the outermost container the reader must open, the frame that gives the novel its structure and content. The novel is structured in three parts or books, each with a different narrator. In the first book, the reader watches the collapse of a marriage through the wife’s perspective and more specifically, through the letters she is writing to her husband. 

The novel’s opening line is striking with its clinically concise apostrophe recapitulating the entire history of their marriage up to this moment: “In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes” (23). Lahiri’s translation conveys the searing pain behind the cold, official tone of the letter. The verb “chafes” astutely captures the wife’s self-perception as a nuisance, an obstacle to her husband’s newly liberated ways. The Italian “ti dà fastidio” is more innocuous, meaning “it bothers you” or “it annoys you,” but Lahiri’s English version is lacerating in its tactile accusation of the husband’s inconstancy. We are instantly bothered and annoyed, chafed, so to speak, by this husband the wife is addressing. But this communication is a dead end, for we never see the husband’s responses. We do learn, on the first page, that the year is 1974, the couple has been married for 12 years, and that they have two children: Sandro, born in 1965 and Anna, born in 1969. This painstaking accumulation and recounting of facts characterizes the wife’s narrative as well as the severity with which she manages her own life, her children’s, the household – never throwing anything out, saving even shopping lists. The hoarding of baggage – things as well as traumas – becomes symptomatic of this text.

The second part of the novel performs a vertiginous shift in time and space. The narrative jumps to the present day, with the couple now in their 70s, living in a spacious apartment in an upscale neighborhood in Rome. The first-person narrator is Aldo Minori, the husband. We finally learn his wife’s name, Vanda. Unlike Vanda’s brief epistolary appearance, Aldo’s narrative occupies the most textual space and spans the chronology of his marriage. It begins in 2014, with the couple leaving for vacation having made arrangements with Sandro and Anna to take care of the cat. They return to find the apartment in utter disorder: all of their belongings have been turned upside down, destroyed, or else viciously damaged. Nothing is missing except for the cat. Aldo begins to rummage through the debris of his existence to unearth the traces of his successful career and of his stifling, unfulfilling family life. The reader now hears Aldo’s version of the story. It’s a much more comprehensive account, one that even evokes our pity if not forgiveness for his abandoning his wife and children for four years, leaving them alone and without financial support in a crime-ridden Naples, while he builds, euphorically, a new life for himself and his young lover in Rome.

That Starnone achieves this trick of soliciting our compassion is evidence of astounding literary craft. For how can we sympathize with a reckless philanderer who refuses to see his wife even after she has tried to commit suicide? And yet we do. Starnone’s technique lies in mining the profound, primal associations of the titular word, “Lacci.”  In Italian “lacci” literally means “laces,” but as Lahiri translates the word in a linguistically brilliant move, it also suggests “ties” or “bonds.” One of the novel’s most memorable and touching scenes involves the literal tying of shoelaces. But the image of being tied socially, emotionally, economically, and psychologically pervades the novel on multiple levels. It is not only the marital bonds that Aldo breaks, he also rebels against the family as an oppressive and repressive institution, replicating the rhetoric of David Cooper’s 1970 study The Death of the Family, translated in Italian in 1972 and thus providing the background for Aldo’s perceived license to cheat. When he eventually returns to his family, Vanda subjects him to subtle psychological warfare in which he acts docile and submissive to the point of masochism. And indeed, it’s the interplay of both husband’s and wife’s sadism and masochism that makes this novel so compelling, that animates the image of laces/ties.  

In the third book, Anna takes the floor to recount her and her brother’s tormented childhood – the trauma afflicted by Aldo’s leaving and the even more excruciating trauma of his return. Anna and Sandro reminisce about Wanda’s emotional coldness, her ruthless frugality, her obsessive hoarding of decades-old miscellanea, and her dictatorial reign over the household. If in Vanda’s narrative Aldo acts as a sadist, then Vanda is cast in the role of the masochist who patiently puts up with Aldo’s cruelty. In both Aldo’s and Anna’s narratives, however, Vanda takes on the role of the sadist, a domineering and merciless figure who reduces Aldo to a voiceless, passive pet. Sandro and Anna agree that Aldo “was and remains Mom’s slave” (147).

The third book, the children’s perspective, is in many ways the most shocking, as it narrates the undoing of all ties, the breaking of all established bonds. It is as if Starnone revisits Euripides’s Medea and grants voice to the two children, the innocent victims of Jason’s brutal infidelity and Medea’s wrath. In Euripides’s play, Jason abandons Medea and their two children to marry the princess of Corinth and thus enter a more prosperous and favorable union. Medea, who has herself fled her home to follow Jason and who is a foreigner in Corinth, kills her husband’s new wife and then her own children so that they do not suffer a more painful death. If Ties is Starnone’s retelling of the Medea story, then in the third part we face the narrative of the children condemned to death by their own parents. Sandro and Anna admit to each other that their father’s betrayal, followed by their mother’s sadistic punishment of their father, in effect killed them, damaging their ability to have loving relationships, scarring them for life (142-3). At the end of the novel, the real victims are neither Aldo nor Vanda who pursue their own petty vengeful schemes, but their children, the silent witnesses of the family’s undoing.

Ties can also be read in the context of another literary work that touches on the sadistic and masochistic impulses in human relationships. I have in mind Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, which proposes an elaborate aesthetics of erotic love through subjection to pain and emotional coldness. The novel’s emotionally cold, cruel heroine is named Wanda (which in German reads Vanda) and she enjoys tying up, literally, her beloved Severin. But beyond the physical bonds, Severin is attached to Wanda through the rhetorical bonds of a written contract that makes him her slave. The master-slave relationship can be said to inform Starnone’s novel as well. Starnone’s Vanda can perhaps be seen as a literary reference to Masoch’s Wanda, and Aldo’s unconditional submission to his wife as the enactment of an implicit, unwritten contract between the two. That Vanda wields the ultimate power becomes apparent in both Aldo’s and Anna’s narratives. But does that exonerate Aldo from the cultural crime of leaving his family? A master storyteller, Starnone does not answer, but quietly lifts the lid of Pandora’s box and lets us peek in.

This essay was originally published in Asymptote (July 2017) as “Stiliana Milkova Reviews ‘Ties’ by Domenico Starnone.” Reprinted in edited form by permission.

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

Stiliana Milkova is the author of Elena Ferrante as World Literature (Bloomsbury Academic) and the editor of Reading in Translation. She is associate professor of Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

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