by Domenico Starnone
Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
Europa Editions, 2017
Reviewed by Ajanta Paul
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” -Ernest Hemingway
Domenico Starnone’s Ties, translated into English from the original Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri is a book that collects the droplets of the author’s haemorrhaging consciousness. In its sanguinary blurring of boundaries it defies genres. Conventionally categorized as a novella, it is, at the same time, an audio play, a whodunit, a dramatic monologue, a dark comedy, a memory novel, and much more.
It provides three versions or points of view – those of wife, husband and offspring – concerning a family’s collective domestic dereliction brought about by the adultery of, and desertion by the husband/father. Described poignantly by the literary critic Stiliana Milkova as “the anatomy of abandonment,” this crisis assumes a definitive focus in the book, coming to represent the therapeutic catharsis of a sorrow-infused and guilt-ridden home that seeks to understand its prolonged pain through raw reverberations and anguished anxieties.
The very image of ‘home,’ in fact, has been skillfully subverted in the novella. The sheer destitution that attends the family when Aldo, the father, departs to live in with his young lover makes Vanda’s carefully curated flat an empty shell resonating hollowly with the residue of her sense of rejection and rage. Aldo’s ménage in Lidia’s cramped quarters, on the other hand, becomes for him a type of Eden, its bliss quite out of proportion to its material provisions, as he describes it as a “bright house” and a “magical space.” Still, it’s not a place where he can keep his young children for a length of time. Thus, for the four years that Aldo was away from his family, technically he was without a ‘home’ as he did not own or rent one, (except for a brief spell) and yet, he was strangely replete, both in his personal life and career.
The reality of the wrecked home that the elderly Vanda and Aldo return to after their vacation, in Book Two, is obviously a metaphor for their marriage which, though outwardly intact is internally informed with a thousand invisible cracks, even as it speaks of the homelessness of the grown children, Sandro and Anna, who lack orientation and stability in their lives, having suffered emotional and psychological scars in their childhood.
Insidious inferences apart, Anna’s idea, at the end of the novella to get their parents to sell their valuable flat and divide the proceeds between the siblings seems to be a sacrilegious affront to the very notion of ‘home,’ and the values it is idealistically expected to uphold. Read in context, however, Anna’s proposal is a practical solution to their present needs, especially as she sees the flat as lucrative real estate and nothing more in the absence of genuine ties to, or precious memories of the same.
The novella is haunted by the imagery of dilapidation and doom from the start. Beginning with the falling apart of a marriage which it principally chronicles, to the unravelling of other relationships within and/or related to the primary family structure, to the physical dismemberment, dismantling and defacement of the couple’s apartment, the notion of a cataclysmic collapse is omnipresent, found even in the name of the beloved cat – Labes, which in Latin, means “ruin.”
Another inescapable image is that of ‘laces,’ translated luminously as “ties” by Lahiri. The cover image of a pair of shoes with laces tied in a manner that is bound to prohibit movement is a cautionary tale of family bonding that may impede individual and professional progress. And yet, it is this very visual image pertaining precisely to Aldo’s quirk of tying his shoelaces in a particular way that inspires a revaluation on his part regarding his relationship with, and responsibilities toward his children which, in a sense, sets in motion his return journey to them. “Is it true that it was you who taught him how to tie his shoes?” A chance question by the nine year old Anna, apparently trivial, initiates a process of restoration that, like all such projects, involves both connection and disconnection. Aldo sums it up well, “But I knew that that tying and untying had brought us closer together, or maybe it had brought us to a gap that, since their birth, had never been so slight.”
Deception, betrayal, containment, bonding and ruin are some of the major themes in this extraordinary novel of human affection and attrition. Ties is, on one level, an enquiry into the pathology of rejection. It is, also, a rumination on resilience and remorse even as it is a deliberation on dystopia. Heartbreaking, funny, lyrical, lacerating, and entirely credible in its universal nuances, it is a gripping tale from the first line to the last.
Consistent speculation that Elena Ferrante, the Italian novelist is a pseudonym for either Domenico Starnone or his wife Anita Raja fuelled critical hypotheses that Starnone’s Ties is in dialogue with Ferrante’s 2003 novel I giorni dell’abbandono (The Days of Abandonment, translated into English by Ann Goldstein). Thus, Ties may be read intertextually in its responses to the earlier novel, or as an independent work in its own right.
Since Elena Ferrante is better known than Starnone in America, logic suggests the connection of Ties to the former be regarded as an advantage in terms of publicity and sales. Milkova perceptively assesses, not without a feminist twist: “For the American audience then, Ties arrives through the literary mediation of not one but two successful women writers, Ferrante and Lahiri.”
According to Starnone the three books (or sections) of Ties may be read as separate novellas, or together as parts of an integrated whole. It is this simultaneous containment and freedom enjoyed by the constituent pieces that bequeaths to the novella a formal flexibility and postmodern relativism. The multiple points of view are like mirrors which throw different, alternative and challenging reflections of the characters, affording the reader a prismatic view of them and their lives. Further, the books, in their intersectional anticipation and recapitulation of phrases, images and lines, reinforce (almost musically) a repetitive and overlapping chronology that gathers into liminal leitmotifs of loss, languishment or lament, as the case may be.
The opening lines of the novella, startling in their sorrowful sarcasm, “In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife,” reappear in Book Two, four decades later, while Aldo sorts his personal effects in the aftermath of the inexplicable ransacking of their flat in Rome. Sentences which echo or anticipate each other, create in this way, a subtle symphony of emphasis and effect, enhancing the auditory patterns in the work. They enrich the interplay of voices that is already there – a polyphonic discourse of raw passion, calm assessment and critical review corresponding, in that order, to the three books of the novella.
Dates are important in this chronicle of departures and returns; longing and belonging; and rememberings and forgettings. They mark the slippage of time within brackets of significant events. Aldo and Vanda had met in 1960, a milestone year in their lives, no doubt. April 30th, 1974 was the date of the first letter that Vanda wrote to Aldo after he left them, a date with which she opens her diary-like entries. March 1978 was the month in which Aldo had sent his wife a letter, asking to see his children alone, a missive that (unbeknownst to any of them at the time) set in motion the process of his reconciliation.
Poring over old letters and other memorabilia that fateful night, Aldo is seen to enact one of the aesthetic preoccupations of his creator. This trait has to do with the compulsive revaluation of every aspect of life in order to comprehend it as deeply as possible. Jhumpa Lahiri in her discerning Introduction to this translation observes, “In Starnone’s novel life has to be reread in order to be fully experienced. Only when things are reread, reexamined, revisited are they understood: letters, photos, words in dictionaries.”
While his break with Vanda was fairly definitive in terms of the exact moment he left her, it was not so easy to assess the specific time of his return to her. A similarly diffuse apprehension of time attends his memory of Vanda’s authority over him. “I can’t say precisely when I started to be afraid of Vanda.” Thus, time in Ties is both crystallised through specific dates, and sublimated through the novella’s internal calendar in the respective chronologies of the narrators.
Starnone’s prose is like a river that rises and falls with the current of the speakers’ emotional rhythms. It is a river that seeps deep into the vital earth of fictional expression, creating retentive passages that, like aquifers soak up the unshed tears. An exchange between husband and wife in Aldo’s story in Book Two is particularly saturated with this groundwater of grief:
“—I don’t remember anything about us anymore.
I summoned the courage. I asked:
—About us when?
—Always: from the moment we met until today, until I’ll die.”
The novella is left formally unresolved, ceasing as it does in mid-conversation, tailing off into blank, white pages. Perhaps, Starnone intends this to actually be the end, the blank pages, with their silence rounding off the conversation that the book sets out to be. Like most works of art, Ties does not come to an end with its formal close or cessation (unconventional as it is, in this case), but begets imaginaries of intuition in engaged minds, inspiring readerly reincarnations across a wide range of reception.