Review: A secret becomes a heavy burden in Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest translation of Domenico Starnone
On the Shelf
By Domenico Starnone
Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
Europa: 144 pages, $17
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Three years into a passionate, turbulent, obsessive romance, Teresa Quadraro makes a pact with Pietro Vella. “Let’s say I tell you a secret, something so awful that I’ve never even told it to myself,” she proposes, “but then you have to confide something as horrible to me, something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it.” Each lover confides something awful to the other, though not to the reader.
Soon thereafter, they break up. Teresa, who was Pietro’s adoring student in a Rome high school, becomes a world-renowned scientist in the United States. Though they write to each other sporadically, they meet only twice over the next five decades.
The first section of Domenico Starnone’s “Trust,” a short, sharp novel that cuts like a scalpel to the core of its characters, is narrated by Pietro. The 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 the fear that a temperamental woman might destroy his life. “I understood with great clarity,” he explains, “that I hadn’t established my life on the basis of great ambitions merely because, if I was imperfect in the piddling matters of a piddling life, how in the world would I handle important matters of an important life.”
Accordingly, Pietro had spent his life teaching literature in an undistinguished public high school. However, after a book publisher invites him to expand on his ideas about educational reform, he suddenly becomes a minor intellectual celebrity. His wife, Nadja, a math teacher, resents the message he spreads on the lecture circuit that public education in Italy is worse than useless — that in fact it exacerbates social inequality — even as he continues teaching in the system.
Two big novelists take sharp turns in new books: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mourns in “Notes on Grief”; Jhumpa Lahiri writes a novel, “Whereabouts,” in Italian.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to translate Starnone is a tribute to the author she calls “the finest Italian living writer; I really feel there’s no one writing fiction as fine, as interesting, as beautiful, as powerful.” “Trust” is, after “Ties” (2017) and “Trick” (2018), the third Starnone novel — each a taut, terse drama of conflicting perceptions — that the American author has brought into English. (Extending her reach into an adopted language, Lahiri published her Italian debut, “Dove mi trovo,” in 2018 and translated it herself, as “Whereabouts,” last year.)
The alliteration of “Ties,” Trick” and “Trust” is entirely Lahiri’s invention, since the titles in Italian, respectively are “Lacci” (laces), “Sherzetto” (joke) and “Confidenza” (confidence). There is no evidence that Starnone, a prolific novelist, journalist and screenwriter, meant to have these particular books read as a group, but Lahiri’s selection marks them as a de facto trilogy about deception and self-deception.
Though many find Pietro irresistible, he persists in self-doubt. His grown-up daughter Emma, who narrates the second section of “Trust” and adores him for his “kind heart and keen intelligence,” is oblivious to the personal flaws of which he is too keenly aware. Teresa, now old and infirm in New York, narrates the third and final section; she is still in love with Pietro but has a more ambivalent read on his character. “I’ve never met a man so full of life,” she says, “and more afraid of his own bewitching fullness.”
These multiple narrators allow Starnone to build a Rashomon-like narrative structure in which the truth about Pietro hovers beyond all three accounts. Explicit references to mendacity warn the reader that no one is entirely reliable. Teresa recalls the lesson she learned from her old teacher, that “telling a story means lying, and the better the liar, the better the storyteller.” Starnone, however, is not so interested in epistemological exercises or the hoary paradox that art is the lie that tells the truth. “Trust” is more intent on exposing the fragile foundation on which we build our self-reliance.
While seducing Nadja, Pietro assures her she doesn’t have to tell her then-boyfriend about their relationship. “Lies are the salvation of humanity,” he insists. Yet salvation eludes Pietro. He is unable to accept the self-deceit that makes life bearable. Or perhaps, worse still, his brand of self-deception makes his life unbearable; he defines himself by his worst moment — the secret he confided to Teresa. Like a Hawthorne character forever branded — and cursed — with a birthmark, a black veil or a scarlet letter, Pietro is haunted by the dread that his ugly personal truth will come out.
Though they are separated by thousands of miles and dozens of years, Teresa remains what Pietro calls his “phantom consort,” a more significant force in his life than Nadja, who remains by his side throughout. He is permanently spooked by the possibility that, at any moment, Teresa could choose to reveal his secret. So it is not so much Teresa who haunts him as it is his own dark vision of himself.
In the afterword to “Trust,” Lahiri explains why she chose not to use the English cognate “confidence” as the title of her translation. Though the Italian word also suggests something confided, like the awful secrets Pietro and Teresa share, its primary connotations are audacity and impudence, qualities notably missing in the decidedly un-self-confident high school teacher. Starnone has earned a reader’s trust with another agile analysis of frail humanity. And Lahiri, whose award-winning fiction has made her one of the most visible figures in contemporary American literature, continues her self-effacing yet wildly ambitious project of vanishing into another language and another writer’s prose.
Kellman’s most recent books are “Rambling Prose: Essays” and “Nimble Tongues: Reflections on Literary Translingualism.”
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