“Via Gemito”: Domenico Starnone’s Ur-Text

By Enrica Maria Ferrara

Via Gemito, Starnone’s widely acclaimed novel (winner of the coveted Strega prize in 2001), is a book that appears to erupt from a place of torment: at the onset, a son reckons the number of times he has seen his father beating up his mother. He wants his recollection to be accurate, his account – as  those episodes of violence will eventually be reconstructed – to be collected and calm. As his father Federì reassures the now adult narrator Mimì “to have beaten up [his] mother only once throughout their twenty-three years of marriage,” (di aver picchiato mia madre una volta sola durante i ventitrè anni del loro matrimonio, 5) 1 All translations from Italian to English are my own, unless indicated otherwise. , Mimì’s strong urge to unveil the truth quickly morphs into a rage which worries him far more than his father’s lies. For he is afraid that his bitter emotion will push him where he doesn’t want to be and that, before he realizes it, he might turn into the person he has pledged not to become, whose identity he has rejected thanks to his “ability to measure his words” (abilità di misurare le parole, 6) and express his inner feelings through well-balanced, “calibrated” sentences. 

From the very beginning, readers are confronted with an exhausting tension between father and son, their antithetic visions threatening at every step to converge and become enmeshed into the furious flow of Mimi’s narrative which, despite his alleged commitment to a serene composure, is far from tidy or calming. That prose is, after all, the exhibition of a carefully performed identity, constructed through repetition of linguistic and paralinguistic gestures, reminding us of Butler’s idea that subjects are the effect of signifying practices and social discourse (Butler 1999). However, as Starnone maintains in the interview published in this special issue of “Reading in Translation,” “the human being is a frail artefact, riddled with cracks” in which nature and culture are hard to separate. Mimì’s nature, his genetic makeup matching Federì’s DNA, threatens to gush into his discourse, breaking its boundaries, hence the constant tension. 

A railway worker and aspiring painter, whose artistic ambitions have been crushed by family obligations and by the politicized, elitist cultural scene of postwar Naples, Federì (short for Federico in Neapolitan dialect) seems to possess an inflated notion of his talent and skills counterbalanced by insecurity for his humble upbringing, and is ready to blame his failures on every single member of his family – especially his wife Rusinè. Yet, despite his short temper and tendency to resort to violence in a domestic setting, Federì is also depicted as a larger-than-life, impossibly charming, exasperatingly confident individual. His storytelling ability forms a great part of his magnetic allure: 

Listening to my father’s tales, I stare at him, mouth agape: Mimì the child is so fascinated by him at times that his lips turn numbed; he would even drool, with great embarrassment, worse than his new-born brother.

Sono un bambino che quando ascolta i racconti del padre, lo guarda a bocca aperta: a volte ne è così incantato che le labbra perdono sensibilità e con grande imbarazzo arriva a sbavare come nemmeno suo fratello appena nato (33)

Stories of war, heroism, artistic apprenticeship in the French Riviera with the talented young painter Rose Fleury; stories of liberation, protection of his young family from the “threat” of African-American allies, glorious collaboration with said allies as an English-Italian interpreter from 1943 to 1945; stories of painting and more painting, for Federì was blessed with an “ability to see further than anyone else” (aveva la vista più lunga degli altri, 80), gifted with a powerful gaze that allowed him “to capture and memorize everything” (cogliere e memorizzare ogni cosa, 81), and especially colours “in each of their tiniest nuances” (in ogni minima sfumatura, 81).

Dialect and profanities are prominent in the linguistic register favoured by the father to keep his audience rooted to their seat, hanging from his every sentence.2  For an in-depth analysis of Starnone’s style, switching between several registers of Italian language and Neapolitan dialect, see De Caprio’s essay in this special issue. However, as is the case for any storyteller worthy of respect, much of his charm derives from his gestures, and from the tone and timbre of his voice. Performance is key to Federì’s hold on Mimì and others, and his best theatrical pieces combine shouting, obscenity, dramatic poses, and a good deal of thrashing about:

Most things in this world, soon after landing on my father’s lips became a private property of his dick which not only he mentioned happily but indicated enthusiastically, his palms converging towards his trousers and genitals like an arrow-shaped sign. [That something belonged to his dick] was one of his favourite formulas, the same he was now uttering in dialect, with a vibrating voice, in via Gemito’s kitchen. “Yes, the debts of this dick”, he shouted.

Gran parte delle cose del mondo, appena finivano sulla bocca di mio padre, diventavano proprietà privata del cazzo, che non solo lui citava volentieri ma indicava anche energeticamente con le palme che convergevano a mo’ di freccia segnaletica verso i calzoni e la sede dei genitali. Era una delle sue formule preferite, la stessa che ora stava utilizzando in dialetto, con voce vibrata, nella cucina di Via Gemito. Strillava: “Sì, i debiti di questo cazzo.” (88)

Performance is also crucial to the way Starnone maintains the spell over his readers. The constant movement of a non-linear narrative in which analepsis and prolepsis (flashbacks and flash-forwards) intersect like waves; magical keywords such as “vanesia” (vain woman) repeated like a mantra to punctuate the beat and pauses of Federì’s first assault on his wife; digressions forcing the readers to travel back and forth in time within each of the three sections in which the book is subdivided: The Peacock, The Boy Who Pours Water, The Dancer. For example, in The Peacock, we are taken through several detours lasting almost one-hundred pages while the main plotline sees the narrator tiptoeing slowly, one minuscule step after another, from kitchen to bedroom, building an unbearable suspense as the racket of his mother and father shouting at each other can be heard in the background. It is a sumptuous, breath-taking, perfectly ordained, literary device with a falsely subdued, untrustworthy narrator dominating the novelistic stage as he pulls the curtains open and closed and hides behind the scenes. We are reminded of the best humoristic literature of our Western tradition leading back to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) by Irish reverend Laurence Sterne.

As a matter of fact, in Sterne’s masterpiece digressions serve a similar purpose to that seemingly pursued by Starnone in Via Gemito. They are a procrastinating device that allows the narrator to ramble about names, noses, hobbies, castration fantasies, cauliflowers and babies, as he introduces his character Tristram who, despite being the protagonist, will only be born after two hundred pages. Digressions are, as Carlo Levi perceptively illustrated in his preface to the 1958 Italian translation of Tristram Shandy, a mechanism to elude death by delaying birth, as death is “the time of individuation, of separation” (il tempo della individuazione, della separazione, 153). In Sterne’s book, too, the child’s identity is placed in conflict with his father’s authoritative one. Rejection of the father’s rules, of his desires, and negation of his personality are a way to assert the right to be born as “other” which will also mean, however, choosing one form, one identity – something that neither Tristram nor Mimì in Via Gemito are prepared to do, hence the act of deferral. 

As Levi also wrote: 

If parricide is the most obvious way to reject time, Tristram Shandy is nothing short than a constant parricide. Whatever the father wants or desires is contradicted and doesn’t come true. The father is time: his law is rejected and replaced by another law, by another time, very long, almost eternal: the time of imagination. The art of writing becomes a weapon for self-defence.

Se il parricidio è il modo più ovvio di rifiuto del tempo, il Tristram Shandy non è che un costante parricidio. Tutto quello che il padre desidera e vuole, è contraddetto e non si avvera. Il padre è il tempo: la sua legge è rifiutata. Ad essa se ne contrappone un’altra: un altro tempo, che è quello della fantasia: un tempo lunghissimo, quasi eterno. L’arte dello scrivere diventa un’arma di difesa (153).

It is precisely in that dimension, where past and future are conflated into one continuous present – the digressive time of duration which coincides in Sterne and Starnone with the time of writing – that identity is born. For the written page is a fictional place ruled by the imagination in which Via Gemito builds, as Nicola H. Cosentino lucidly sees, “a story about competing versions” of the truth, including “the several versions of the father and the uncompromising one of the son” (2021), but also a story in which readers are requested to enter that alternative imaginative space and facilitate the birth of the son’s identity.

This is what happens at the end of that long riveting narrative detour in The Peacock, as readers have left the narrator approaching his father’s bedroom to fetch him some cigarettes whilst Federì and Rusinè are fighting in the kitchen. So fascinating is the tale of Federì’s tragicomic, irreverent, outrageous accomplishments that we often forget about Mimì and his frightful advancing along the corridor, where ghosts of family members – his father’s sister Modesta in particular – are hiding behind furniture and curtains. But when the finishing line is crossed, the most unexpected vision is shared: a huge peacock is waiting for Mimì, its crest brushing against the ceiling, its eye-spotted, regal tail “painting the room with as many colours as my father used to leave on his palette in the dining room” (dipingeva la stanza di tanti colori quanti mio padre ne lasciava sulla tavolozza in camera da pranzo, 124).

The reality of this strange animal whose presence fills the protagonist with inexplicable and overwhelming happiness, is never questioned. We are suddenly catapulted into a quasi-magical realm in which the appearance of disproportionately large peacocks in an urban setting is plausible. The reason for our eagerness to indulge our suspension of disbelief is that we are required to do so to enable the protagonist’s birth as a subject. We need to bear witness to Mimì’s triumph as he gloats at his father’s inability to see the peacock despite “his prodigious eyes” (129), finally receiving proof that Federì is indeed an impostor, a liar. We can’t help but step into Mimì’s “time of imagination,” and accept the reality of the iridescent peacock whose eyes along with ours, will help Mimì see himself: “As they were re-drawing me, they were able to see me” (Mi vedevano, ridisegnandomi, 128). Above all, the peacock’s penetrating gaze (and Federì’s inability to see it) empowers young Mimì to finally believe that his version of the truth is more accurate than all of his father’s lies, that his mother Rusinè – and all the family – are truly a victim of Federì’s mythomaniac, aggressive behaviour, and that, in conclusion, the father deserves to be killed. As soon as he is born as a subject, after the procrastination of dozens of digressions, Mimì plots a real parricide: he buys a pen-knife which he carries around everywhere (as later described also by the protagonist of Trick, Daniele Mallarico), confessing to his mother his desire to stab him. Mimì’s are empty threats but we are his accomplices. We support his parricide based on the absurd appearance of a gargantuan peacock, an emblem of vanity: the overinflated ego of the son standing opposite the overinflated ego of the father.

This pact of collaboration between narrator and readers continues in the second part of the book, where Starnone has the son turn into a model for Federì’s ambitious painting The Drinkers. In fact, the novel’s core section is all about the making of this legendary oeuvre which Mimì as an adult decides to chase alongside other paintings housed, according to Mimì’s brothers, in prestigious historical buildings belonging to Naples’ city council. As already happens in The Peacock, the intended viewing of the paintings is procrastinated: Mimì takes a few detours, traversing the city and stopping over at several key locations including Via Gemito. Meanwhile, the crafting of The Drinkers is embedded in this walk, conjured by the adult flâneur’s steps, his frantic stalking of memories and places.

The huge canvas is prepared using one of Rusinè’s best bedsheets, furniture is moved out of the way, family life is put on hold for months and months as mother, grandmother and children bow to Federì’s genius, his delusions of grandeur, or more simply give in to fear of his excess, his rage. The memory of Rusinè’s beating lurking under their skin. Mimì soon becomes the model for the boy who pours water from a jug, standing next to the construction workers and the mastiff featuring in Federico Starnone’s painting – Domenico Starnone’s real father – now on the cover of Via Gemito’s latest edition.3 Perceptive observations about Starnone’s decision to use Federico’s painting as the cover of Via Gemito’s new edition are in Cosentino, 2021.

Narrative time stretches far and wide via the habitual digressing technique that has the double purpose of bringing us right into the artist’s mind, as well as providing further details about the onset of Federì’s vocation, his exceptional talent, the ups and downs of his career sabotaged by cliques of painters legitimized by the academic and political entourage of prizes and exhibitions. In the middle of all this, Mimì keeps incredibly still, under his father’s gaze, paralyzed by fear that a sudden twitch of his body might unsettle his pose and trigger his dad’s anger. An incredible suspense is built as eventually Mimì will have to move, as depicted in the beautiful excerpt translated by Oonagh Stransky for this special issue of Reading in Translation

Even more enthralling is the effect produced by the contrast between the unceasing wandering of the adult Mimì who scrutinizes every nook and cranny of Naples topography like a reborn Stephen Dedalus,4 An important trope, that of identity-building interconnected with urban space and the father, is revisited from a female perspective in recent Italian narratives by Marta Barone, Elena Ferrante, Nadia Terranova, and others. and the deadly stillness of young Mimì, object of his father’s gaze. We are suddenly hit by the realization that if the protagonist as an adult is able to walk around, interrogate the places floating through the haze of his fuzzy memory, it is only because one day the child had the bravery of standing up to his father and challenge his prohibition to change position: “As for time, and how long the attempt took… I can’t be sure. Sometimes, duration depends on the significance that we attribute to our actions. In some ways, I think that I am still rotating, and that I will be for as long as I live, or for as long as I think about it and tell the story” (Starnone & Stransky 2021).

Mimì’s identity is captured in that life-long rotation, suspended in the time of duration like a “gyrating hero” (Reynolds 2021), hanging off the narrative thread of a written discourse that helps him make sense of the love-hate relationship with an exorbitant father to whom he resembles more than he is comfortable to admit. For what is the real difference between the three-year-old Federì hypnotized by the colourful “chaos of living and dead matter” (tumulto di materia viva e morta, 271) observed from granny Funzella’s balcony, the artist Federì –  his “head crowded by shadows attempting to control thousands of ghosts” (la testa gremita di ombre e doveva tenere sotto controllo mille fantasmi, 272), the child Mimì frightened by the sight of Modesta and Peppino’s spectres along the corridors of Via Gemito, and the writer Domenico affected by “graphomania” (431),  also hunted by phantasmal presences? There is no real difference, in fact. As Starnone will illustrate in Lability (Labilità, 2005) which could be considered the sequel to Via Gemito, the aesthetic journey is like a compelling and prolonged game of make-believe during which writers erase the world as it is commonly perceived, based on Newtonian physics and Aristotelian logic, to live in a parallel reality populated by “living and dead matter,” real people and ghosts. A similar ludic dimension is sensed by Mimì as he remembers the particular smell of “strenuous and yet jolly excitement” (eccitazione faticosa e insieme lieta, 302) emanated by the father as he completed The Drinkers, similar to the scent that lingers in those rooms where children have been playing for hours: “I recognized that smell, it was the smell of our games, when we pretended to be who knows what heroes” (Quell’odore lo riconoscevo, era l’odore dei nostri giochi, quando fingevamo di essere chissà quali eroi, 302).

In Lability the protagonist’s desire to create is triggered by an “illness” that can be traced back to childhood. Curiously, this desire does not manifest itself as a precocious talent for writing but rather as a leap of the imagination that is so vivid as to produce visions that can be mistaken for real things, people, places: “It was a world of visions which captured me and held me tight into a sort of lunacy” (Era un mondo di visioni, che mi assorbiva fino a stralunarmi e non mi lasciava, 36). Like in a game of make-believe, there is no real separation between fiction and reality. However, in the case of our protagonist – a professional writer sharing traits, memories and family with Via Gemito’s Mimì so that the two novels have been labelled by Silvio Perrella as “an origin diptych” (il dittico delle origini; Perrella 2005) – the confusion is like an ailment which his mother names “lability.” It consists in the man’s peculiar ability to forget about himself, to exit his own living form and migrate into another through a process that highlights again the profound enmeshment of nature and culture, pointing to a decentring of the human that is very close to contemporary post-anthropocentric, new-materialist, environmentalist postures (Alaimo 2010; Barad 2007; Iovino 2016). Starnone writes: “Words allow you to penetrate the molecular structure of things – chromosomes, DNA, everywhere – better than cyberspace. You only need to identify the point of access, the crack” (“Le parole servono a entrare nella composizione molecolare delle cose, nei cromosomi, nel dna, dappertutto, e fanno meglio del cyberspazio. Basta solo individuare il punto di passaggio, lo spiraglio” (Labilità, 184).

Ironically, the first time this “talent” reveals itself is not in the act of writing but in that of drawing which the adult protagonist himself relates back to rivalry with a father who is unequivocally the double of Federì, an artist and a railway worker. The drawing in question is the rare trading card of a footballer named Boniperti, coveted by all children: after making it himself with paper and crayons, Mimì firmly believes that his childish sketch is not a fake but the original. The world has shaped itself so as to accommodate the new reality of a boy making a (far from) perfect version of it and swearing by its authenticity, like any child who cries wolf (Labilità, 180).

It is not hard to recognize in the portrait of Lability’s young writer/drawer who loses all sense of self during the aesthetic process the toddler Federì in Via Gemito, who gets lost by a dirt track in Calabria next to a water stream, as he plays all day making figurines and statuettes out of clay and mud. It was the day his artistic vocation came to the fore. The little boy was not frightened but certainly oblivious to others as he stayed out well into the night, while search parties were looking for him everywhere. Creative rapture is not the only striking similarity between father and son. For example, despite his pledge to express himself in a carefully selected Italian, Mimì as an adult confesses to enjoy the vulgar language of swear-words used by his father; he finds it entertaining and, above all, that “filthy dialogue” (dialogare sporco, 251) pronounced in dialect helps him capture the voice of the city, reviving his memory.

Even Federì’s proverbial restlessness (arteteca in dialect) seems to be inherited by Mimì’s incessant roaming, that “life-long rotation” which is simultaneously a trait of his rebellious performative identity and a genetic print. 

Perhaps, as confessed in Lability, at the root of the narrator’s vocation there is an oedipal need to be seen and recognized by his mother. He draws his picture, in fact, “under his mother’s eyes, so that she could see he was the best, the one deserving of her gaze. But I would be wary of my father. … [I was drawing] in a space where, unseen, I could be unique, with no rivals” (“sotto gli occhi di mia madre, perché vedesse che ero il migliore, che meritavo il suo sguardo su di me. Ma attento a non farmi vedere dal mio genitore. … in uno spazio in cui non visto potevo essere unico e senza rivali”) (Labilità, 171). This is also what is suggested in Via Gemito’s glorious finale when, in The Dancer, Mimì finally admits to his killing instincts towards his father (“la voglia di parricidio”, 343) being motivated not by the way Federì treated Rusinè but rather by the sentiments he expressed when talking about women and sex. 

The concluding section of Via Gemito is a remarkable balancing act, a beautifully crafted piece of literature in which the “tempestuous overflowing of blood” (il tempestuoso straripamento del sangue, 345) and humours during the narrator’s adolescent years is simultaneously voiced and stifled, exhibited and concealed. Frightened by Federì’s notion of intimacy between man and woman as an obscene, filthy place, Mimì’s experiences in himself the clash between an idealized and, let’s say it, outrageous love towards his mother and the blind desire to experience lust, knowing that “lust always bordered with violence” (346). Ultimately, the son is overwhelmed by the dreadful prospect of thinking like his father, acquiring his objectifying gaze towards women as Federì takes up a new job as a commercial painter, mass-producing female nudes comparable to “coitus in strikingly vivacious colours, luminously obscene” (coiti dai colori vivacissimi, di luminosa oscenità, 351). At the same time, Mimì is certainly attracted by the tantalizing proximity of Nunzia’s beautiful body, the unattainable young dancer whom he meets on Saturday nights, at family parties, and whose image he tries to protect from the assault of his father’s degrading notions of femininity and sex. 

The brilliant coming-of-age story told in The Dancer grows out of the account of Federì’s last few days in hospital as an old man, and takes the shape of a long flashback aiming to illustrate why, after all, young Mimì did not kill his father during those months which coincided with the preparation for his delayed first communion. Wearing an unflattering, emasculating robe to honour a vow made to Saint Ciro by Rusinè, and providing a fittingly humoristic counterpoint to his father’s domineering, phallocentric stance, Mimì’s ambivalent feelings towards sexuality stride furiously towards the glorious finale in which his oedipal obsession comes to the fore, threatening to undermine the trustworthiness of the entire account. 

If readers might feel a sense of openness when reaching the end, it resembles more the exhilarating dismay which could strike us when contemplating a skilfully painted oversized canvas – such as the one used for The Drinkers – in which we suddenly notice an arm longer than necessary (has it been done on purpose or not?), than the bafflement caused by an unfinished sentence. As a matter of fact, intertextuality is key to understanding Starnone’s poetics as all his novels are like paintings that break out of the frame to expand into other paintings, resuming a conversation with the reader that had been temporarily put on hold. For example, artistic vocation is a theme which from Via Gemito spills over to Lability and Trick, and can be traced all the way back to Pole Vault (Il salto con le aste, 1989). Similarly, if one is intrigued by the contradictory feelings human animals have towards sex, a mysterious mixture of repulsion and attraction according to Mimì, one has to read the ambitious, irreverent, Erotic Autobiography of Aristide Gambia (Autobiografia erotica di Aristide Gambia, 2011) that makes explicit reference to some of the autobiographical material discussed in earlier novels. In fact, Via Gemito is possibly the Ur- text, the archetypical novel containing all others: a veritable masterpiece whose translation will hopefully be in the making soon, to be followed suit by all of Starnone’s narrative work.

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

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Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed., Routledge.

Cosentino, Nicola H.. “Via Gemito is Back, as Text and Painting”. Translated by E. M. Ferrara and S. Milkova. In Reading Domenico Starnone, Special Issue of Reading in Translation, edited by E. M. Ferrara and S. Milkova, https://readingintranslation.com/2021/08/10/domenico-starnones-via-gemito-is-back-as-text-and-painting/(opens in a new tab).

De Caprio, Chiara. 2021. “On the Language and Style of Starnone’s Novels.” In Reading Domenico Starnone, Special Issue of Reading in Translation, edited by E. M. Ferrara and S. Milkova.

Iovino, Serenella. 2016. Ecocriticism and Italy: Ecology, Resistance, and Liberation. London: Bloomsbury.

Levi, Carlo. 2021 [1958]. “Il Tristram Shandy di Sterne”. In Prima e dopo le parole: scritti e discorsi sulla letteratura, edited by Gigliola De Donato e Rosalba Galvagno. Rome: Donzelli, 147-154.

Perrella, Silvio. 2005. Giochi imperfetti. In “L’Indice dei libri del mese”, 22: 3, 12.

Reynolds, Michael. 2021. “The Three Lives of Domenico Starnone”. In Reading Domenico Starnone, Special Issue of Reading in Translation, edited by E. M. Ferrara and S. Milkova, https://readingintranslation.com/2021/09/13/the-three-lives-of-domenico-starnone/.

Starnone, Domenico. 2007 [2005]. Labilità. Rome: Feltrinelli.

Starnone Domenico. 2011. Autobiografia erotica di Aristide Gambia. Turin: Einaudi.

Starnone, Domenico. 2012 [1989] Il salto con le aste. Turin: Einaudi.

Starnone, Domenico. 2016 [2000] Via Gemito. Rome: Feltrinelli.

Starnone, Domenico. 2020 [2000] Via Gemito. Turin: Einaudi.

Starnone, Domenico & Stransky, Oonagh. 2021. “The Drinkers: An Excerpt from Domenico Starnone’s Via Gemito (Feltrinelli, 2000; Einaudi, 2021). In Reading Domenico Starnone, Special Issue of Reading in Translation, edited by E. M. Ferrara and S. Milkova, https://readingintranslation.com/2021/08/16/the-drinkers-an-excerpt-from-domenico-starnones-via-gemito/.

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