For those of us who have left the places of our youth, any return to those rooms we once occupied, those halls we once traversed, can be freighted with emotion. The ghosts of our past life crouch there, and sometimes we want to leave them undisturbed, for they can force a reckoning with what we were and what we have become.
A reckoning is certainly what awaits Daniele Mallarico, the aging illustrator at the center of Domenico Starnone’s superb Italian novel, “Trick, ” now available in an English translation by Jhumpa Lahiri. In this layered, alternately witty and melancholy story, Mallarico sees shadowy apparitions everywhere when he returns to his childhood home in Naples. And though they do not speak (these are not ghosts that rattle chains), they nudge him to assess his life and explore his insecurities.
What ensues for Mallarico is a running internal dialogue about art, aging, love, infidelity, violence, envy and ambition.
Mallarico’s daughter, Betta, a harried academic in an unhappy marriage, lives in the Naples apartment where he grew up as the son of an inveterate gambler. At her urging, Mallarico reluctantly agrees to leave his home in Milan and spend four days in the apartment watching Betta’s precocious 4-year-old son, Mario, while she and her husband attend a conference.
Mallarico’s health is poor, but he’s also burdened by the creeping sense that he’s become irrelevant. Once a celebrated artist, his phone doesn’t ring as often anymore. His invitations are drying up. What’s worse, he’s struggling to please a young publisher who has commissioned him to illustrate a deluxe edition of the classic Henry James short story “The Jolly Corner.”
“The Jolly Corner,” you may remember, is also about a man who confronts ghosts in his childhood home. Starnone expertly plucks some of the short story’s essence, twisting and molding his own work into a marvel of metafiction that feels fresh and surprising.
Throughout “Trick,” Mallarico and Mario engage in a kind of duel. Despite his youth, Mario is relentless and self-assured, dictating things as simple as how his grandfather prepares their orange juice. Mallarico is annoyed and overwhelmed. “I was starting to feel trapped by that instruction-manual voice of his,” Mallarico observes.
But Mallarico sees hints of himself in his grandson, a preternaturally talented artist. Mario is also an unforgiving critic, examining a sketch of his grandfather and insisting, over his elder’s protests, that it’s a crude self-portrait.
“You’re really ugly,” the kid says.
“Yes indeed,” the grandfather responds, “but it’s a bit mean of you to say so.”
When the child looks at his grandfather’s more formal work, he comes away cold. While leafing through a book his grandfather illustrated, he declares that the images are “a little dark,” then goes on to instruct Mallarico to make them lighter next time. That interplay between darkness and light trickles through the narrative. The boy pushes the grown man to step out of the gloom.
When they venture beyond the apartment, Mario is better at navigating the present-day city, while his grandfather is transported again to the past. Mallarico finds himself thinking about the explosive tempers of the people he encountered in his childhood. In school, they’d been instructed to say people were “irate.” But he thought the dialect used in the streets was more appropriate: “They only knew ’a raggia, a rage.”
“Trick” is the second book by Starnone to be translated by Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such works as “The Namesake” and “Interpreter of Maladies.” (Lahiri translated Starnone’s “Ties,” released last year, months after an Italian journalist published a much-discussed article asserting that Starnone’s wife, Anita Raja, is the true author of the fantastically successful novels published under the name Elena Ferrante.) Lahiri, who was born in England then moved as a child to the United States with her Bengali parents, learned Italian and embraced the language with such vigor that she wrote a memoir, “In Other Words,” in Italian.
There are translators who remain in the background barely noticed, and then there are translators who maintain a more visible posture. Lahiri is definitely the latter. In her fascinating introduction to “Trick,” she writes with captivating skill about the complex language choices she had to make.
“Trick” struck her as the perfect translation for the title of Starnone’s book, originally called “Scherzetto.” But when she encountered the word at an important juncture in the book’s text, “trick” didn’t feel right. She suggested “gotcha.” Starnone told her “it was closer to a proposal. ‘Let’s play around, let’s have a little fun.’ ”
For Lahiri, “translation, much like this novel, is the intersection of two texts and two voices.” But she adds that there was another element at play: the influence of Henry James, whose ghost story inspired Starnone. “A legitimate translation of ‘Trick’ required three players: Starnone, James, and myself,” she writes.
It’s all fascinating stuff. But, in a sense, it pulls attention from the novel. I’d suggest reading “Trick” first, then reading Lahiri’s insightful introduction. Otherwise, like me, you might find yourself marveling at her mastery of language but distracted by wondering how she landed on words like “agglutination” or phrases such as “omniscient homunculus.”
Or maybe next time, Lahiri could just skip the introduction and let Starnone do all the talking. Now that would be a neat trick.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer for The Washington Post.
By Domenico Starnone
Translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri
Europa. 176 pp. Paperback, $16