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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