The most significant event, the crux around which Domenico Starnone’s novel Ties revolves, takes place sometime in 1974, when Aldo Minori returns home only to tell his wife that he has been with a woman. We know this from Vanda’s letters, in turns entreating and bitter, to Aldo in this time and over the next four years that they spend apart.

To Aldo, as he recounts later, Vanda’s reaction isn’t as predictable or as good-natured as he had then assumed; the words he had used to confess come back to haunt them in several ways. This “betrayal” – and Vanda and Aldo see it differently – will shape their relations with each other and with their two children, Sandro and Anna for years to come.

The 1970s in Italy

The early 1970s were a difficult and unusual time for Italy. Post-war Italy till this time had been marked by unprecedented economic growth and large-scale migration within the country, as people and families moved toward metropolitan and industrial centres such as Milan, Genoa and Rome. This had its impact on society and culture with noticeable leaps in consumerism, a rise in living standards, and a corresponding change in how the genders now perceived their own roles.

The early years of the decade, however, saw an economic slow-down, and marked governmental instability manifested in a series of left-wing attacks and rumours of a neo-fascist coup. All these have a direct impact on this novel, on the frictions in the Minori marriage, and their life together , as Aldo takes up the narration in the next section of the book, forty years after the “separation”.

The “ties” in the novel refer of course to those that bind families, and the institutions that regulate society, marriage (which Aldo scorns), and family itself. Ties, for this family, also refers to the unique way that Aldo has of tying his laces, one he demonstrates to his children, a manner that ties him to his family. It’s not surprising then, as translator Jhumpa Lahiri – a new role for her in literature – reveals in her introduction, that the title of the novel in its original Italian is indeed Lacci or “laces”.

It’s a novel that “contains” much, Lahiri says, which is a word with dual meanings. A container is something that both holds and restrains. In this slim novel, too, it’s a word with multiple meanings. There is a container – a cube whose secret only Aldo thinks he knows, and then there are the many emotions, hurts, and slights contained within this family. The family is sacred (to Vanda) – it is an institution that crimps and binds her to Aldo.

A mystery or two

There are also a couple of mysteries, more than the one of a missing cat, that lead to some of these contained secrets spilling out. It’s a mystery with comical edges and cynical revelations, of a piece with all complexities within families. It isn’t what Aldo fears will be discovered that will embitter their relations even more, but something else altogether, something relatively innocuous – a name for the family’s beloved cat that reveals much about Aldo’s own notions about his life with Vanda.

The other mystery is of course metafictional and already alluded to, as the New York Times review of this book recently did. A mystery related to the identity of Elena Ferrante, celebrated author of, among other novels, Days of Abandonment, written in 2004. The former too is set in Naples, as is the early part of Ties, and in some senses Starnone’s 2014 novel can be read as a response to Ferrante’s work, where it is Olga the aggrieved wife who is facing a similar situation.

This is all the more interesting because of the speculation over Ferrante’s identity. Some time ago, an infuriated Starnone had denied that neither he nor his writer-translator wife Anita Raja wrote under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante, but recent, intrusive investigations have suggested that Raja may, after all, be the real person behind Ferrante.

Questioning institutions

In several ways, Starnone’s Ties follows the tradition of post-war Italian novels that attempted to understand and explain the complex crises Italian institutions found themselves in. Italy itself had been unified as a single country only a century or so ago, in the 1860s, and Italian, the language increasingly adopted by everyone, had a sophistication that was, as critics emphasised, evidently missing in all other dialects. This is a chronology well elucidated by the novelist, linguistic theorist and translator from Italian, Tim Parks.

Parks reveals in the introduction of his A Literary Tour of Italy how he taught himself Italian, first by reading writers who used a relatively simpler structure, and then moving on to more difficult writers. He also stresses that a literary culture can never be separate from the world it writes about. Lahiri too writes that Starnone grew up speaking the Neapolitan dialect and took to writing in Italian later.

That Vanda and Aldo in Ties live part of their early married life in Naples, a more provincial city, and that Aldo moves his family to the more cosmopolitan Rome (where his lover Lidia lives), are, in part, revelations of this. It also reflects the sudden shifts in how Italians imagined the world, and the institutions that shaped their place in this world.

For instance, Aldo feels constrained in his relationship with Vanda, who has sacrificed her own self for him, and her family. And while he admires Lidia’s independence, he realises he too is beset with his own insecurities and jealousy that come with the independence. Here, an individual’s self-doubts mirror a society facing diverse challenges and changes – a broad theme that marks many of the best-known Italian novels of the last few decades.

For instance, in early 1923, in an example provided by Tim Parks, Italo Svevo published his Zeno’s Conscience, about a man who tries his best to understand himself, and even subjects himself to a psychotherapist’s couch, only to find that self-understanding elusive and unreachable. In Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and The Bonfires (1950), a young Italian man returns from the US after the bitter years of Fascism, realising he has missed much of his country’s history. But the contradictions make him question his own assumptions too. Lahiri tellingly refers to one of Pavese’s short stories here: “Suicidi” or “Suicides”, quoting one of its lines, which speaks for Starnone’s novel too: “All of life is a betrayal”.

Then, of course there are the novels of Alberto Moravia (1909-1990), who, in slim, tightly packed novels such as Boredom, Contempt, or Conjugal Love, for instance, laid bare the complexities and secrets mired in the most intimate of human relationships.

The tension in Italian literature has reflected the strains between writing in Italian and the regional dialects, and then in turn the conflict between the familiar and the strange. In Starnone’s novel, it is obviously the institution of marriage itself that is in peril. It is an institution that is meant to contain, but it also ties people down.

Marriage as an institution allows for some closely- and long-held secrets. It has its quiet rebellions and leaves behind, as in the case of the Minori children, some “damage”. Marriage, as an institution, also contains those unexpected moments that magically come when least expected: Aldo kissing a sleeping Vanda on the forehead as she sleeps, while he frets in anxiety over some misplaced “secrets”.

Starnone, via Lahiri

In her introduction, Lahiri states that Starnone writes in a kind of “uncontaminated Italian”. “Uncontaminated”, of course, is how Lahiri’s own spare prose can be described too.

In Lahiri’s words: “My Italian writer friends, too, hail his transparent, nuanced, erudite prose. I agree with them. Its rhythm, its lexicon floats free from any trend.” This is something that also strikes the reader in Lahiri’s free-flowing translation, which gets to the heart of Starnone’s concerns. And yet, this is not the translator’s prose but the original writer’s.

This is how we read of Aldo’s guilt and renewed realisation many years later, of the time he had abandoned his family, especially his children.

“Seated, devastated, on the floor of my study, I examined that document for a long time. It was there in the yellow envelope along with Vanda’s letters. I asked myself if my children had ever read the original measure decreed, as they say, by the judicial authority or some similar document that must be there too. That sheet of paper constitutes the record of my formal renunciation of them. It’s proof on paper that I abandoned them to grow up without me, that I let them fall definitively out of my life, in a tempest that would sweep them far from my eyes and from my concerns.”

As Lahiri says, Ties is a novel more than just the sum of its parts. It is a novel hard to slot into a genre – it contains mysteries, but it is also, at the same time, a comic work, a social novel, a novel of life itself. It asks, and leaves unanswered, the question of why it is our most intimate relationships that remain the most challenging, where clear descriptions and ready answers will always remain elusive.

Ties, Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian, and with an introduction, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Europa Editions.