Trick by Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Published in the UK by Europa Editions, Trick is the most recent novel by Domenico Starnone, an Italian writer, screenwriter and journalist of some repute. (One of his earlier books, Via Gemito, won the Premio Strega, Italy’s foremost literary prize, back in 2001.) Trick is an excellent book – a rather touching story of the fractious relationship between a grandfather and his young grandson, all played out within the claustrophobic atmosphere of a city apartment over the course of a few days.

On the face of it, the premise of Trick is a deceptively simple one. However, as is the case with much of the best fiction in translation, there is a great deal going on under the surface here, giving rise to a narrative that can be read on more than one level.

The story is narrated by Daniele, a moderately famous illustrator in his mid-seventies, currently in recovery following a recent surgical procedure. As the novel opens, Daniele has reluctantly agreed to travel from his home in Milan to his daughter’s apartment in Naples to take care of his four-year-old grandson, Mario, for a few days. Daniele’s daughter, Betta, and her husband, Saverio – both academics – are planning to attend a conference, hence their need for Daniele to look after Mario in their absence.

Daniele is reluctant to come to Naples for a number of different reasons. Firstly, he is struggling for inspiration on his current project – a commission to illustrate a new edition of the Henry James ghost story, The Jolly Corner. Secondly, having lived a relatively solitary life since the death of his wife, Daniele doesn’t really know Mario very well, and the prospect of taking care of an energetic toddler is somewhat irritating to say the least. Finally, there are other, more subtle factors at play, but these only become fully apparent to Daniele once he returns to Naples and his old childhood home.

Right from the start, the sense of tension in the family’s apartment is patently apparent. Relations between Betta and Saverio have deteriorated and are presently rather strained. In short, while Saverio believes his wife is having an affair with another, more senior member of their department, Betta fervently denies there is anything untoward going on. As a consequence, both parents are somewhat distracted, giving them little time for a handover or consideration for Daniele’s wellbeing.

The characterisation here is superb, particularly in relation to the two main players in the drama, Daniele and Mario. For a four-year-old-boy, Mario is a fully-realised creation – precocious, inquisitive, playful, and delightful. Perhaps most importantly, he is also unintentionally annoying, especially as far as his poor grandfather is concerned.

To demonstrate his knowledge of the household, Mario proceeds to show Daniele how to make breakfast for everyone in the apartment, complete with their personal preferences for different coffees and teas. Much to Daniele’s surprise, the toddler’s visual memory and ability to carry out certain familiar tasks are very well developed indeed.

He [Mario] proceeded to show me where the oranges were, where the juicer was, how to toast the bread so that it wouldn’t burn and emanate a foul odor that disgusted his father, which shelf held the bags of black tea and green, which cupboard contained of the coffeepots, where the teapot was since the saucepan I’d chosen was inadequate, where the placemats were for the setting the table. Oh, the quantity of things he said that morning, and with such command. (pp. 41-42)

Once Betta and Saverio depart for the conference, the action – such as it is – gets going in earnest. While Daniele tries to concentrate on his work, Mario wishes for nothing more than to play with his grandfather, urging the latter to join him in his games. There are strained exchanges between the two as Daniele tries – rather unsuccessfully – to convince his grandson that Grandpa must work. Naturally, Mario is too young to understand the importance of this, and his actions result in frustration for Daniele at an already stressful time. As such, a sort of battle of wits plays out between the two individuals as Daniele constantly tries to outmanoeuvre the youngster, albeit with limited success.

I whipped around, I burst out:

– Who said you could take over the remote, who said you could change the channel?

Mario was scared. He replied:

– I asked you, Grandpa, and you said yes.

I extended an angry arm and he immediately handed back the remote control. I tried to go back to my friend, muttering, disgruntled, all the while, but I couldn’t remember the channel.

– You have to put in the number, the child said, agitated.

– Quiet.

I skipped from one channel to the next, I found the right one, but my friend wasn’t on anymore. I threw the remote onto the sofa and said, with fake calm:

– Go to bed right now, right away.

But I did nothing to see this command through. Instead I left the room, I roamed through the house, I turned on lights, I heard myself muttering disjointed sentences in dialect. I was now not only spent to the point of instability, but unhappy, as if every unhappy moment in my life had decided to gather together in that house, in that moment. (pp.101-2)

As Daniele struggles with his drawings for The Jolly Corner, there are other ghosts for him to contend with too – those from his own childhood in Naples many years ago. The return to his old family home – the apartment once belonged to Daniele’s parents – forces Daniele to reflect on his youth and the relatively humble nature of his upbringing. The local neighbourhood was a frightening place back then; gambling and corruption were rife, as were looting, theft and violence. Daniele has always considered himself lucky to have escaped the poverty of his childhood, securing a release from an impoverished life by way of his artistic talents and ambitions. Now the city is alive with ghosts for Daniele, powerful reminders of the path he may well have taken had he not been so keen to break away.

In essence, Mario’s boundless energy and intelligence come together to act as a catalyst, forcing Daniele to confront his own inadequacies and limitations. He feels old, jaded and somewhat obsolete, superseded by younger, more proactive artists who are eagerly snapping at his heels. A phone call from his disgruntled publisher – unhappy with Daniele’s initial drafts for the book – exacerbates the situation, leaving Daniele with a need to feel respected and valued at a vulnerable time.

Here though – I said to myself – are signs of decline I can’t ignore any more, as violent as dreams that crack glass: the offensive call from my publisher; the worn-out imagination I couldn’t manage to revive; and my daughter, my only daughter, who’d ensnared me, unawares, in the role of the elderly grandfather. (p. 72)

A pivotal scene brings everything to a head, prompting Daniele to use all his ingenuity and skill in an attempt to get Mario on side, particularly in this moment of crisis. To reveal too much about this aspect of the book would spoil things; suffice it to say that the sequence in question is tense, compelling and ultimately satisfying.

I loved this thoughtful, thoroughly engaging novel, and would highly recommend it to book groups and individual readers alike. There are some striking insights into the human condition here, particularly around our fears of ageing, the ways our lives are shaped by the choices of our youth, and our need to feel worthwhile and appreciated, irrespective of our age or personal circumstances.

My thanks to the lovely Marina Sofia, who gave me a copy of this book as a present; I definitely owe her something special in return.

27 thoughts on “Trick by Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll have to take a look at Ties – thanks for the tip. This was my first by Starnone but hopefully not my last. A very impressive book, definitely one I would recommend to you.

      Reply
  1. heavenali

    I really enjoyed this one, I think I must have read it last year. I also found Mario to be an absolute delight, and the relationship between him and his grandfather really well portrayed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! As you say, the author captures all the nuances of the relationship so brilliantly, from the pressure on the grandfather’s patience to the exposure of his vulnerabilities. That scene on the balcony is so tense…unforgettable.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    The book sounds lively. I think that this is kind of an old story told in a more complex way then is typical. That of an older person watching a child and the ensuing insights. These stories are often overly sentimental and sometimes shallow. This one sounds as if it has some depth.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re right about the essence of the story being somewhat traditional at heart, almost akin to a myth or fable. Nevertheless, there’s something very profound or affecting in the telling. There’s a poignancy to it, without the sweetness or sentimentality that often mars such tales.

      Reply
  3. BookerTalk

    It’s a fabulous book; the characterisation is excellent and the prose flows beautifully. I felt a lot of sympathy for the grand-dad – its exhausting looking after any child of that age but Mario’s higher functioning make him especially demanding. I think I would have been tearing my hair out after a day with him :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, Mario is rather demanding, quite a handful for a parent never mind a somewhat distant grandfather. I too have a lot of sympathy for Daniele,mostly because of the changes he has to grapple with in terms of his status and self-worth. Nobody likes to feel they are becoming outmoded or obsolete, especially at his time of life.

      Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    This sounds very good Jacqui. I was pretty sure I had bought a Starnone novel and that it would be Tricks, but it turns out what I have is an earlier work Ties. Oh, well! I guess I should read Ties first and I know I will eventually end up buying Tricks too :)

    Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        No worries at all. On subject of mix-ups, I suspect I’m going to start getting the two novels confused, particularly as their titles are so similar! Trick, Ties…I can already see the potential for slip ups. :)

        As for Starnone, I think you’ll enjoy his writing. There’s something gentle about it, and yet it’s perceptive enough to offer some great insights into human behaviour.

        Reply
  5. gertloveday

    Nice to read of this relationship between grandfather and grandson, one we don’t read of too often.
    Is there a suggestion Starnone might be Elena Ferrante in another guise?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good point – and when this type of relationship is portrayed, it’s often more sentimental and cuddly than it is here.

      I think you’re right to raise the question as to whether Starnone is behind the Elena Ferrante novels. There was a suggestion to that effect some years ago, although I think it’s been superseded by the theory that Ferrante is in fact Anita Raja, a literary translator from Rome. The fact that Raja is married to Domenico Starnone makes the situation all the more intriguing!

      https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/10/02/elena-ferrante-an-answer/

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  7. Andrew Blackman

    Ah, this one sounds wonderful, Jacqui. And how great to have a writer like Jhumpa Lahiri as the translator! I love the way she writes, so I’d imagine she could really add something to the power of the translation. Thanks for giving me another book to look out for in 2020!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome, Andrew. Lahiri on translation duty was a selling point, for sure. She writes beautifully in her own right, plus her insight into human emotions was almost certainly an advantage here. The novel has the kind of focus on family dynamics that seems to suit Lahiri’s style. I hope you get a chance to read it in the future.

      Reply
      1. Andrew Blackman

        Hey, that’s a very good point! I was thinking of her beautiful prose, but you’re right that insight into human emotions would also be a real advantage for a translator. This has gone straight onto my TBR list (although given my track record of compulsively collecting books to read and then actually reading completely different ones, that may not mean much). But all that, like many other things, will change in 2020. Happy New Year!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, excellent. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think should you get the chance to read it. Happy New Year to you as well, Andrew! I hope it’s a good one on every level.

          Reply

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