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Posts Tagged ‘Domenico Starnone’

trick

Translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lairi

This delicate, tender novel was the last Asymptote book club read (the most recent one has just arrived) – and I was immediately intrigued, because while the author is unknown to me, the name of the translator is very familiar indeed. A literary writer in her own right, I think I read at least one of her books, maybe two – though so long ago, pre-blog I can’t be sure.

Trick is apparently the fourteenth novel to be published by Domenico Starnone, it is the story of a grandfather and grandson, a story of ageing, childhood and artistic ambition.

“What really prevented me from waving my arms and calling out for help was shame. I’d wanted to be more than the place I’d grown up in, I’d sought out the world’s approval. And now that I was at the end of my life and taking stock of it, I couldn’t bear looking like an hysterical little man who screamed for help from the balcony of the old house in which he’d been a young boy, the one he’d fled from, full of ambition. I was ashamed of being locked outside, I was ashamed that I hadn’t known how to avoid it, I was ashamed to find myself lacking the controlled haughtiness that had always prevented me from asking anyone for help, I was ashamed of being an old man imprisoned by a child.”

Daniele is over seventy, a widower and an artist and illustrator of some renown, who has been living in Milan for about twenty years. His adult daughter; Betta lives in Naples with her husband and their four-year-old son Mario. The couple are mathematics academics and having been invited to attend a mathematics conference in another city, Betta calls her father and asks him to come to Naples to look after Mario for a few days. Daniele is irritated at the request at first – but of course he agrees, though he is so distracted by his latest commission – and the reception of it – that he leaves it until the last minute to travel to Naples. The apartment where his daughter lives is in a house where Daniele once lived as a child, and so his memories of his past are very much caught up in his present.

Daniele is a wonderfully crafted character, reminding us that just because a person is a bit older, it doesn’t mean that their ambition lessens, neither does their need for approval. Daniele is shaken by the less than effusive reaction to the drawings he has recently submitted to the publisher of a new edition of the Henry James story The Jolly Corner he has been asked to illustrate. It is his work that is mostly on his mind as he arrives at his daughter’s apartment – the day before she and her husband head off to the conference. Mario is told that sometimes Grandpa will have to work, which he solemnly accepts, but Mario is four and doesn’t really know what that is.

Mario is an absolute dream of a child character, precocious, vulnerable, frustrating and loving, in only the way a four-year old can be. We see everything that occurs through the eyes of the child’s grandfather – yet it is Mario who drives most of the action and he is viewed by his grandfather with great affection and bewilderment. Daniele hasn’t spent all that much time with Mario in the past, and so the child is giddy with joy at having his grandfather come to stay. So much so he refuses to go to nursery.

The action (such as it is) takes place over just four days, days in which Daniele in tested to the limit. Time and again Mario gets the better of his old grandfather, Mario can’t read or tell the time, but he knows how to lay the table has an impressive vocabulary and claims to know how everything in the apartment works. Mario tells his grandfather his drawings are too dark, an assessment his grandfather takes very seriously and muses upon a lot.

The time that Mario and his grandfather spend together is certainly not all plain sailing. Daniele is rather out of practice and he doesn’t know Mario as well as perhaps he should. While Daniele can be moody and cross, he is also very loving and eager to keep the little boy happy, pushing himself to the limits of his physical capabilities when he is playing with the boy. However, he can also be a little careless and neglectful and it is Mario who soon starts to rule the roost.

“Seeing him go up and down, tirelessly, wore me out. I dragged a chair over to the ladder and sat down, but I forced myself to monitor any tiny faltering in his movements so that I could leap up in time. It was amazing, the amount of energy in his flesh, in his bones, in his blood? Breath, nutrition. Oxygen, water, electromagnetic storms, protein, waste. How he tightened his lips. And the way he looked up, the effort those too short legs had to make in order to span the gaps between the rungs with ease.”

Disaster (almost) strikes with a balcony door that only opens from the inside, (having previously read The Days of Abandonment I’m now seriously concerned about the doors in Italian apartments) and I read on with my heart in my mouth.

A kind of appendix to the novel, after the main narrative is concluded gives us some of Daniele’s drawings and artist notes. Here we get an insight into the mind of the artist and the grandfather in a very intimate way.

So, the Asymptote book club continues to introduce me to exciting voices in world literature – the latest arrival – looks like taking me right outside my comfort zone. I’ll be honest I’m very unsure about it – I’ll let you all know in due course.

 

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