Book review: Trick by Domenico Starnone

A battle of wits between a grandfather and his four-year-old grandson is at the heart of the deceptively simple premise of Domenico Starnone’s latest book, Trick. Witty, observant and melancholy by turns, it is a deftly layered book, a wonderful read.

One of Italy’s most accomplished writers and the winner of his country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Strega, Starnone is also a screenwriter and journalist. This is his 14th book and the second of three books that have been translated into English by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Fun fact: Starnone is married to Anita Raja, who many speculate may be the elusive author Elena Ferrante.

Now to the story. An illustrator in his 70s, Daniele Mallarico is requested by his daughter to babysit his four-year-old grandson, Mario, over a couple of days while the parents attend an academic conference. To do so, he has to return to Naples, the place of his troubled past. The story is largely constrained in terms of time and place, taking place as it does over four days and mainly inside the apartment where his daughter lives.

Starnone draws his characters sharply and with sly wit. Mario’s parents are in the midst of a marital breakdown. The father comes across as stodgy, dull, pedantic and extremely jealous. The mother, Mallarico’s daughter, is painted as overworked but selfish and preoccupied. Mallarico and Mario, the main protagonists, are a study in contrasts.

Mallarico is physically and mentally vulnerable, both as a result of a recent surgery and the onset of old age. Increasingly feeling reduntant, he fights to stay relevant, clutching onto his past glory as an accomplished illustrator. Mario, on the other hand, is a precocious energetic child adept at doing things far beyond his age who nevertheless is quite lonely.

When the parents depart, Mallarico and Mario are left to fend for themselves. Mallarico is uneasy at being back in the childhood home he had bequeathed to his daughter. He also finds his mind wandering and catches himself becoming increasingly absent-minded.

As the grandfather and grandson duel over the next few days, each trying to control the other, their obvious differences are also brought to the fore. Their tug-of-war is both anxiety-inducing as well as hilarious. The battles start snowballing when they affect Mallarico’s work in more ways than one.

Mallarico is behind on his latest project, which is illustrating an old Henry James story, The Jolly Corner. By choosing this story, Starnone cleverly intertwines both the James story and his. In the James story, the author’s alter ego returns to the US from Europe after years, and has an unnerving encounter with a ghost from his past. Meanwhile, Mallarico finds himself being plagued by ghosts from his past in his childhood home. His abusive father who was also an inveterate gambler, his long-suffering mother, his unfaithful wife and even the adolescent Mallarico all return, to provide both epiphany and regret.

Naples provides the strong setting for both Mallorica’s past and the story. Harsh,violent, poor, broken-down, it’s a place Starnone astutely portrays as being more familiar with a raggia ­— rage — rather than the milder emotion of anger and irritation; a place where everything feels precarious and untrustworthy.

Jhumpa Lahiri has translated the book in a fluid manner. Even when an American term like ‘gotcha’ is used, it does not jar. She has also written an explanatory introduction to the book, which, while interesting, would have served the book better as an afterword. Lahiri writes, “to translate is to walk down numerous scary corridors, to grope in the dark,” but this nervousness is not at all evident in her translation. She is rather taken with Starnone’s intermingling of both his and the James story, seeing it as much more than a homage to James on Starnone’s part.

In her view, the reader would be enriched by reading the James story, if one has not already done so, after reading this book. Starnone too, seems to be of the same view, going by the 28-page Appendix at the end of the book; in the run- up to Mallorica’s departure to Naples, it combines both his thoughts on the James story and the illustrations he plans for it, and also reveals the state of his mind prior to his departure.

The complexity underlying the simple plot of this book demands repeat readings. Even in its first reading, it is such a nuanced, moving and endearing book. Really, one can’t wait to read Starnone’s next.

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Book review: Trick by Domenico Starnone

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