On the bookshelf
By Domenico Starnone
Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
Europe: 144 pages, $ 17
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Three years after a passionate, turbulent and obsessive romance, Teresa Quadraro makes a pact with Pietro Vella. âLet’s say I tell you a secret, something so horrible that I’ve never told myself,â she suggests, âbut then you have to tell me something so horrible, something something that would destroy your life if anyone found out. âEach lover confides something horrible in the other, but not in the reader.
Shortly after, they split up. Teresa, who was Pietro’s beloved high school student in Rome, becomes a world-renowned scientist in the United States. Although they write to each other sporadically, they only meet twice in the next five decades.
The first section of Domenico Starnone “Confidence, “a short, pointed novel that cuts like a scalpel at the heart of its characters, is narrated by Pietro. Son of a working-class father who burned with resentment about his place in the social hierarchy, Pietro limits his aspirations , plagued by low self-esteem and fear that a capricious woman will destroy his life. âI understood with great clarity,â he explains, âthat I had not established my life on the basis of great ambitions simply because, if I was flawed in the trivial matters of a life insignificant, how on earth could I handle matters of an important life.
As a result, Pietro had spent his life teaching literature in a public high school without distinction. However, after a book publisher invited him to expand on his ideas on educational reform, he suddenly became a minor intellectual celebrity. His wife, Nadja, a math teacher, does not appreciate the message he is spreading in the lecture circuit that public education in Italy is worse than useless – that in fact it exacerbates social inequalities – even s ‘he continues to teach in the system.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to translate Starnone is a tribute to the author she calls âThe best living Italian writer; I really have the impression that no one writes fiction so fine, so interesting, so beautiful, so powerful. “Confidence” is, after “Ties” (2017) and “Trick” (2018), Starnone’s third novel – each a tense and laconic drama of conflicting perceptions – which the American author has translated into English. (Extending her reach into an adopted language, Lahiri published her Italian debut, “Dove mi trovo”, in 2018 and translated it herself, as “Or,” Last year.)
The alliteration of “Ties”, Trick “and” Trust “is entirely an invention of Lahiri, since the titles in Italian are respectively” Lacci “(laces),” Sherzetto “(joke) and” Confidenza “(confidence). There is no evidence that Starnone, a prolific novelist, journalist and screenwriter, intended these particular books to be read as a group, but Lahiri’s selection marks them as a de facto trilogy of deception and self-deception. .
Although many find Pietro irresistible, he persists in doubting himself. His adult daughter Emma, ââwho narrates the second part of “Trust” and adores her for her “good heart and keen intelligence”, is oblivious to the personal flaws of which he is all too aware. Teresa, now old and crippled in New York, tells the third and final section; she is still in love with Pietro but has a more ambivalent reading of his character. “I have never met a man so full of life,” she said, “and more afraid of his own haunting fullness.”
These multiple narrators allow Starnone to construct a Rashomon-type narrative structure in which the truth about Pietro hovers beyond the three narratives. Explicit references to lying warn the reader that no one is entirely reliable. Teresa remembers the lesson she learned from her former teacher, that “to tell a story means to lie, and the better the liar the better the storyteller.” Starnone, however, is not so much interested in epistemological exercises or the old paradox that art is the lie that tells the truth. âTrustâ is more about exposing the fragile foundation on which we build our autonomy.
While seducing Nadja, Pietro assures her that she doesn’t have to tell her then boyfriend about their relationship. “Lies are the salvation of humanity,” he insists. Still, salvation escapes Pietro. He is unable to accept the self-deception that makes life bearable. Or maybe, even worse, his brand of self-deception makes his life UNbearable; he defines himself by his worst moment – the secret he told Teresa. Like a Hawthorne character forever marked – and cursed – with a birthmark, black veil, or scarlet letter, Pietro is haunted by fear that his ugly personal truth will emerge.
Despite being separated by thousands of miles and decades, Teresa remains what Pietro calls her “ghost consort,” a greater force in her life than Nadja, who remains by her side throughout. He is constantly afraid of the possibility that at any time Teresa could choose to reveal her secret. So it’s not Teresa that haunts him so much as his own dark vision of himself.
In the afterword to “Trust”, Lahiri explains why she chose not to use the English “trust” as the title of her translation. While the Italian word also suggests something entrusted, like the terrible secrets Pietro and Teresa share, its main connotations are daring and cockiness, qualities that the decidedly insecure high school teacher particularly lacks. Starnone has earned a reader’s trust with another nimble analysis of fragile humanity. And Lahiri, whose award-winning fiction has made her one of the most visible figures in contemporary American literature, continues her self-effacing but extremely ambitious project of disappearing into another language and the prose of another writer.
Kellman’s most recent books are “Rambling Prose: Essays” and “Nimble Tongues: Reflections on Literary Translingualism”.