Book review

A scary novel without ghosts in it: Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation of Domenico Starnone’s ‘Trick’

‘They’re kids. Come on.’ Or is there more to it?

Jhumpa Lahiri has translated Domenico Starnone’s novel, Trick, from Italian into English. Like most translators, she introduces the novel with a few pages of insight. In it, she mentions the occurrence of children in Henry James’s work (James being both a visible and invisible influence and catalyst throughout the narrative.) She describes The Turn of the Screw in a manner that made me smile, calling it James’s most famous ghost story about a frazzled adult left alone with a precocious child.

Now, there may be a way in which James’s story might just be brought to fit that description, but anyone who has read The Turn of the Screw will agree that there is nothing in the least bit precocious about Flora and Miles, the two children who can see and communicate with ghosts. This is the story credited with launching a million creepy-child narratives, and the children in it do certainly possess an otherworldly, unsettling knowledge, but I would not call them precocious for all that, considering the praiseworthy connotations the word can have for a child.

In a similar fashion, their governess, “the frazzled adult,” is in most ways anything about frazzled. She simply belongs to a profession that is supposed to require hankering after kids and bargaining with them to be good children. This governess is actually quite wily, growing increasingly obsessive as she not only fails to control her wards, but also fails to limit their education and awareness to the domain of her rationality.

Nothing normal about it

I mention all of this not because I want to correct what Lahiri wrote (it was not at all a significant part of her fabulous preface), but rather because her odd summation of the ghost story was a seamless description of how the novel made me feel. Indeed, Trick reveals itself to us in a manner I can best call normal: a disgruntled, ageing father figure brought to tediously act out the role of guardian to his precocious grandchild; a set of young, educated parents who take recourse neither to their youth nor to their intellect to search for happiness; a cooking lady who can prepare delicious food; a nasty neighbour from a lower economic class; a city with weather and traffic.

Domenico Starnone and Jhumpa Lahiri | Image credit: leanne@tendenci.com / Wikimedia Commons
Domenico Starnone and Jhumpa Lahiri | Image credit: leanne@tendenci.com / Wikimedia Commons

And yet, as the story progresses – with not a single aspect of the abovementioned normalcy growing any less normal – Starnone manages to scare the reader. At one point, I closed the book, and then opened it carefully to the very first page. I read the blurb on the inside flap. I’d never imagined I would say this, but the blurb hit me. “Imagine a duel between two men. One, Daniele Mallarico, is a successful illustrator who, in the twilight of his years, feels that his reputation and his artistic prowess are fading. The other, Mario, is Daniele’s four-year-old grandson.” I’d read this before beginning the novel. And I’d even thought: Right. So the smartass grandson throws a fit, gets what he wants, and then we reflect on how children truly belong to an imaginary construction of life. Right.

But here I was, back and baffled. How had Starnone managed to stage an actual, modern-day duel between the two? And how in heaven’s name had I ended up feeling scared for myself, in case I ended up in that situation with that little boy?

In a way, we are all familiar with a fear of those who possess childhood, or those whom childhood possesses. But in the lives we live, this is never a fear to last, to form a memory, to learn a lesson. Eventually we all end up opening our arms for the child or taking out our wallets at the candy store, volunteering our shoulders or backs for a test drive. The leavening thought is: They’re kids. Come on.

Or is there more to it?

And until the third part of Trick brings out the heavy psychological machinery, they’re-kids-come-on is exactly the refrain playing in the background. Even though Mario, as a four-year-old kid will repeatedly make you ask if you read this book, Wait. How old did they say he was? But that is okay, after all, because he is precocious and intelligent and don’t we all know such boys and girls, and so on.

But it is precisely with the third part of the novel that the so-on ends, the come-on disappears, and the fright sets in. I’ll reproduce here the very end of the second part:

“I heard Mario behind me, who cried out happily:
– Grandpa, I’m going to play a trick on you.
I turned around, I told him:
–  Don’t come out, it’s cold.
He didn’t come out. He pushed the glass door as hard as he could and locked me outside.”

Trick is a great novel, and it has an apt name. A scarily apt name. Its last part gives us an old man locked out on the balcony in the freezing cold rain of Naples, with his grandson, his reason for being locked out, on the other side of the glass, looking at him. Nothing supernatural, otherworldly, horrific. Just a natural thing to do in the fun world of a child. Play a trick. I have already disclosed way more than I perhaps should have; I won’t describe or praise what happens soon after. I will end, however, with praise for Starnone’s acuteness and Lahiri’s astuteness in presenting to us the most formidable form of nature, of urban, modern, and human nature, more exhausting than a city and more unavoidable than the weather: a child.

Go read this book to float on anxieties you’ve either experienced or are anticipating, of parenthood, emulation, and genes. Lahiri is marvelous at capturing the momentous nature of the moment, and with Trick as her source text and Starnone as her author, she translates pure gold into pure gold.

Trick, Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, Europa Editions.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.