Love, Death, and Language in Starnone’s “Vita mortale e immortale della bambina di Milano”

By Enrica Maria Ferrara

On the surface, Vita mortale e immortale della bambina di Milano (“Mortal and Immortal Life of the Girl from Milan”), Domenico Starnone’s latest literary gem (Einaudi, October 2021), has a deceptively simple plot. It relays the wondrous deeds of a young boy, Mimì (short for Domenico) who has a morbid curiosity towards death and is also the protagonist of three tragicomic love affairs. The ill-fated love for “the Milanese child” (la bambina di Milano), an ethereal creature who suddenly appears on the balcony of the apartment block standing opposite the one where our adult narrator used to live with his family. The unconditional love lavished over him by his grandmother Nannì, a salt-of-the-earth Neapolitan lady who speaks almost exclusively in dialect and is a swift connoisseur of all death-related matters due to the premature passing of her beloved husband, fallen off a roof after two years of marriage. The intellectualized, performative relationship of twenty-year-old Mimì with his girlfriend Nina (recurrent name in Starnone’s novelistic production), a student of Mathematics who is only privy to the “amusing” personality side of our protagonist but knows nothing about his anxieties, saturnine moods, and preoccupations with death:

I addressed everyone, her in particular, with an amused tone of voice … and yet, not a day would pass that I wouldn’t wish to go to a solitary lane and, without any apparent motives, give in to a despair I never felt as a child, punch and kick the air, eventually burst into tears, even if only for a minute. 1 All English translations from “Vita mortale e immortale della bambina di Milano” are my own.

Usavo con chiunque, soprattutto con lei, un tono stabilmente divertito … Eppure non c’era giorno in cui non desiderassi andare in una stradina solitaria e, senza nessun motivo evidente, disperarmi come non mi era successo nemmeno da bambino, tirare pugni e calci all’aria, mettermi a piangere anche solo per un minuto (70). 

The reflection on love, already undertaken in Ties, Trick and Trust, is resumed and refined. The latter, newly and skilfully translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, launches at the very beginning in a passionate first-person internal monologue about love, defining it as “a lava of crude life that burns the refined one, an eruption that obliterates understanding and piety, reason and rights, geography and history, sickness and health, richer and poorer, exceptions and the rules” (Trust, 13). 

It is a raw, burning passion, albeit an aspirational one. We will not see Pietro Vella, the protagonist of Trust, dragged away by that river of sizzling lava, unable to control his emotions and instincts; quite the contrary. Readers wait for proof of those initial statements throughout the entire book, realizing that the only woman who could trigger such an ardent response is the “disobedient and quarrelsome” (Trust, 17) Teresa who will be apart from Pietro during most of the narrated events. What are the reasons behind that restraint, we wonder? 

Vita mortale e immortale helps us tackle precisely that question and goes further than that. Indeed, this latest pocket-sized accomplishment not only grapples with the nature of love, death and relationships, but also with the themes of language, identity, and the development of artistic vocation. In this respect, we can say that Vita mortale e immortale is firmly linked not only to the latest trio of novels, but also to Starnone’s “Ur-text” Via Gemito – gestational chamber of the writer’s future themes and tropes – to its sequel Lability, to his metafictional reflection on the art of writing in First Execution, and to the struggles with intergenerational love in Trick

As young Mimì tells us about his grandmother’s attentive, unconditional love towards him, he also confesses – without any guilty sentiments – that “deep down” he is not even sure he reciprocates her affection: instead, the true object of his love is idealized, distant, and (as soon will become apparent) dead. 

One takes such a comfort in knowing that at least one human being thinks of you, for right or wrong: how precious this person is, I want to care for him or her till the day I die! Over the course of my life, I have done this as often as I could, but the very first time it happened with the Milanese child, oh yes it did. She was precious to me, I felt, as much as I was to my grandmother. 

È così consolante sapere che c’è almeno un essere umano che pensa di te, anche sbagliando: ah com’è preziosa questa persona, voglio prendermene cura finché muoio. Io, nel corso della mia esistenza, l’ho fatto tutte le volte che ho potuto, ma la prima volta che l’ho fatto, sì, è stato con la milanese. Lei – sentivo – era preziosa per me quanto io lo ero per mia nonna. (24) 

It is precisely this chasm between ideal, romanticized, eternal love, and real, embodied, mortal one that constitutes the centrepiece of this novel. Readers can’t help feeling that Mimì’s love is misdirected: all he wishes for is that the legendary underworld from which Orpheus rescued his beloved Eurydice – “accessible” via a rectangular hole covered by a hatch in his garden – may open up and release eternal images of beauty captured in the verse the boy composes in honour of the Milanese child. The little girl, whose life seems precarious from the very beginning due to her dangerous habit of lifting herself over the banister whilst performing her ballerina’s numbers, soon morphs into the object of the protagonist’s desire as she suddenly dies and turns forever into lyrical matter, her essence fused with Mimì’s aspiration to acquire immortality through his writing efforts. Neglecting the visceral, colorful face of the Hades according to Nannì, populated by the irreverent, rowdy elves “scazzamaurielli” (in dialect, those who break through walls), and described using a combination of aulic and vulgar language reminiscent of the plurilingual pastiche used by Dante for the deepest circles of hell (Malebolge), the narrator as a child missed his opportunity to focus on the present: his ugly and tender grandmother, “small, chubby and hunched over … her nose like a wrinkly pepper … all small and shrunk as she sits in her chair, knitting” (piccola di statura, grassoccia e gobba … il naso come la papaccella … arrugnata su una sedia sferruzzando, 21). 

So it would be more accurate to say that the conundrum is not death versus life, but a certain type of life and death which the narrator privileges over another: the Milanese child expressing herself in impeccable Italian when Mimì speaks with her by the fountain is certainly more desirable – dead or alive – than the stooped grandmother whose voice appears to come out in clusters of words without any gaps in between, uttered in the unruly Neapolitan dialect, similar to those animal “growls” that make us human described by Pietro Vella in Trust: “there’s nothing human that can’t be traced back to a growl, an argh, an ugh, an ooh ooh ooh: all of it, even poetry, even the broken gates of dawn, even the suns that strike the eyelashes, were composed of growls” (85). 

However, it is only later in the novel that Mimì will manage to reconcile the low register of those vernacular snarls with the dignified spot on which he places love, culture, language, and all artistic creation. In fact, we may as well say that the purpose of the novel is precisely to achieve that reconciliation both on the level of plot and of discourse. In Starnone’s own words in this special issue: “I have finally chosen to give voice to that original clash between the Neapolitan and Italian languages, telling the story of how I dealt with it and how my characters deal with it.”

As the adult narrator of Vita mortale e immortale comes to terms with the persistence of his love towards the deceased Milanese girl – as a “first matrix of all his love affairs” (primo calco dei suoi amori) – and lays bare the root of an idealization process identifying the child with the noble place of Italian written culture, he is also forced by his university exams to pay closer attention to her grandmother’s dialect. A student of classical studies and Italian philology, he is suddenly struck by how ephemeral language is, and how impactful quotidian and regional speeches are in the consolidation of written variants: “one variant chases out the previous one, perhaps because the scribe is from Emilia Romagna or Calabria, or even from Naples, and pronounces the words unlike an author from Tuscany or Liguria” (“una grafia caccia via la precedente, perché l’amanuense è emiliano o, che so, calabrese, o napoletano, e pronuncia in modo diverso dall’autore toscano o ligure,” 83). 

This means that nothing lasts or can be captured forever, even the enchanting perfect Italian words of the Milanese child which Mimì is still keen to eternalize through his verse or a tale (such as the one we are reading); even the truncated, untidy words of the Neapolitan dialect which Mimì transcribes phonetically, for his glottology exam, from Nannì’s voice, aware of “the clamour” they make “in her head” (115). Or, on the contrary, one can argue that everything lasts, is simultaneously mortal and immortal, as long as we resign to the notion that we are surrounded by “dead remains” (resti mortali, 104): the world as “living and dead matter” first mentioned in Via Gemito. In Starnone’s poetics of lability, life is an entanglement of memories, ghosts and flesh, beautiful pictures of our past selves and unforgiving images of our decaying bodies, melodic sounds of Italianized voices and animal-like growls of vernacular ones. Culture and written texts are also enmeshed with it: “history, geography, physics, chemistry, novels, poetry, algebra, aeronautical engineering” (la storia, la geografia, la fisica, la chimica, i romanzi, le poesie, l’algebra, l’ingegneria aeronautica, 104). All of the above are “dead remains” and living matter. 

This is a worldview which is horrific and beautiful at the same time; it is frightening to think that we live in a cemetery – ironically, Mimì’s childhood friend Lello works in one as a grown-up. This is why humans force themselves to abide by the mechanics of a binary understanding of reality which places all spiritual and ethically desirable things such as love, culture, truth, on a distant, hard-to-reach, immortal spot – the balcony of the Milanese child – associated with youth, beauty, the past, and classic tradition. Everything else that is embodied, and within our reach, such as the wrinkly mortal skin of a meek and fierce grandmother is to be discarded as second-class. To overcome our fright means to accept the reality of a nature-culture in which there are no boundaries; high and low, outside and inside, do not exist per se. Dead and living – or mortal and immortal – cohabit in our minds. It means accepting the embracing of human and non-human otherness, the fall, the rolling of our body towards an empty space – a trope often present in Starnone’s narrative – rather than pursuing the balancing act of a carefully performed identity. 

When Mimì’s university degree obliges him to revert to the Neapolitan milieu which he has so carefully separated from his performative Italian identity of permanently “amused” university student, he confesses that his glottology “exam seems like a downgrading of university” (l’esame mi sembrò un declassamento dell’università, 106). In fact, Mimì’s journey through his grandmother’s language equals that loss of balance which could have made both Daniele Mallarico in Trick and Pietro Vella in Trust plummet from a balcony. It is the only way to enjoy an experience of full, unrestrained love, which – going back to our initial question about the reason behind Pietro Vella’s containment – the protagonist of Trust declares to pursue but fails to indulge in. For the “disobedient and quarrelsome” Teresa who could release his true passion evokes, instead, unhappy memories of a childhood during which Pietro fantasized of throwing himself off a balcony and surviving, feeling immortal, but simultaneously feared the notion of someone else pushing him over the edge and leading him to certain death. 

Love is thus a combination of the hubris of immortality with the fear of mortality: the distant bright light of the Milanese child – dazzling, like many other powerful female characters in Starnone’s novels – and the dark warmth of the Neapolitan grandmother; the immobile beauty of a youthful body captured by a photograph, and the crumbling face of an old lady whose vitality is enclosed in the mutable pronunciation of her words in dialect. While Mimì’s aspiration as he grows up and even later on, as an adult, is to pay tribute to the Milanese child with a work of literature worthy of her unparalleled beauty, the novel we read – with a metanarrative twist that is also a constant trope in Starnone’s oeuvre – is in fact a monument to both facets of love incarnated in the grandmother and the Milanese child, entangled forever in artistic creation.

What is pure enjoyment in Vita mortale e immortale are Mimì’s dialogues with his friend Lello, particularly when negotiating the rules of a game – the duel with the pretend-swords made out of cardboard canes and Nannì’s knitting needles is among the best scenes in the book – or arguing over who will marry the Milanese girl. Starnone masterfully strikes a balance between the candid voice of the child and the understated ironic counterpoint of the adult narrator, following the winning model adopted in Trick. The other high point of a novel which I would not hesitate to define faultless, are the conversations – either as direct dialogues or free indirect style – between Mimì and Nannì, with the endless translation of words from Neapolitan to Italian in an attempt to express the wealth of a language which can hardly rely on the fixity of written signifiers, given the family history, the folklore, the creative power, which every uttered word conveys. Even the most valiant translators would struggle to render in context Neapolitan expressions such as “cummiglià” (literally, to cover with a lid; to hide and suppress) and its opposite “scummiglià” (literally, to take the lid off; to allow the inside out in the open). Like Nannì, they will have to try and “undo the ribbon she had tied around the language” (sciogliere il fiocco che aveva annodato intorno alla lingua, 114). As happens with Mimì and Nannì’s linguistic negotiations, translators will have to choose between a “troubling proximity” and a “troubling distance” (115), and might end up discovering that any translated expression sounds “fake.” And yet, they will have at least attempted to modulate the sound of a Neapolitan voice layered with ancestors’ voices, brimming with “prebabelic” sounds, heaving with history (118). It is certainly a challenge worth undertaking.

Enrica Maria Ferrara is a Tenured Teaching Fellow of Italian at Trinity College Dublin, as well as a writer and a translator. She has published widely in the field of Italian studies, comparative literature, and film. She is the co-editor of Reading Domenico Starnone as well as a member of the Editorial Board of Reading in Translation.

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

Works Cited:

Starnone, Domenico. 2017. Ties. Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Europa Editions.

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

——-. 2021. Trust. Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Europa Editions.

——-. 2021. Vita mortale e immortale della bambina di Milano. Turin: Einaudi.

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