Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, is an exquisitely written tug of war between light and dark, old and young, brooding and play. Set in the confines of a Neapolitan apartment, where the 75-year-old illustrator Daniele looks after his 4-year-old grandson Mario, whose parents are away attending a conference, the novel packs a lot of ideas into the small space: Daniele’s ghosts of his past manifest in the nooks and crannies of the house in a story that occasionally verges on the Gothic, mirroring his current work as an illustrator of Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner.”
What immediately strikes me is Starnone’s concise way of writing. There is an ease to the language, presumably thanks to Lahiri’s translation too, that plays into the novel’s general sense of deceptive simplicity. In a way, the novel tricks the reader into a seemingly straightforward narrative, yet a lot is bubbling underneath, surfacing only later when glimpses of Daniele’s internal monologue are revealed to the reader. What does not necessarily come apparent in the translation is the story’s rich tonal register, of which I had no idea while reading but which Lahiri notes in her illuminating albeit a little hyperbolic introduction (which should be considered more as an afterword than an introduction, I think). Neapolitan dialect underpins one of the novel’s main tensions, as Daniele reconfigures his identity when entering the city of his childhood, having lived his adult life in Milan.
Essentially a miniature drama of ideas, it’s amusing to witness how the tension between the young child and his grandfather unfold in a short period of time. Simple dialogue with the child meets internal reflection, like here where Daniele contrasts himself against the laughing Mario:
Even the delighted violence that gurgled from that wide-open mouth, exposing its tiny teeth, disturbed me. I envied the reckless hilarity on his face and in his throat. I didn’t know if I’d ever laughed like that, certainly I had no memory of it. There was such force in the way he laughed at what was at once vapid and essential. He was laughing at trivial words used to describe his father’s body, and it was a laughter – I thought – unclouded by anguish. I wandered around the room. I glanced, distracted, at his drawings on the walls, all stick figures and green grass and indecipherable scrawls.
It is a captivating story all in all, yet not one that engenders lots of personal feelings in me as a reader. Nonetheless, where the novel lacks in my personal relatability, it’s still constructed admirably and paced well. The appendix of the novel relies quite heavily on James’ rather obscure short story that I (and many others, I suppose) haven’t read, which, for me, meant that I couldn’t quite connect with the last pages of the novel. But maybe that’s exactly why it’s called an appendix: the actual novel does not presuppose any knowledge of James. Although Trick is intertextual, it comes across not as the author’s self-indulgence in one his favorite authors, but as love of literature.