“Ties” by Domenico Starnone
Oh the exquisite variations of great fiction. I recently reviewed Paul Auster’s 4321 a sweeping 865-page saga of four parallel lives. Today, I recommend, the slight 150-page novel by the renowned Italian writer, Domenico Starnone, rumored to be the husband of the enigmatic writer Elena Ferrante, believed to be the journalist and translator, Anita Raja. As if to prove the point, this novel takes off from an earlier work by Ferrante, Days of Abandonment. A good place to start if you’ve not read.
But first, an added incentive to read Ties. The novel has been translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winning-writer of the story collection, Interpreter of Maladies and the novel The Namesake, among others. Lahiri, who has multiple advanced degrees and an unquenchable curiosity, in other words, intimidatingly brilliant, decided a few years ago she wanted to learn Italian. Not for a casual tourist conversation, rather to read and write and study the great Italian writers and thinkers. She even moved her family to Italy to do it right. Lahiri, whose mother’s native language was Bengali, a language she never heard growing up in America, has a special relationship with language.
In an interview in The New Yorker, she said, “In graduate school, I decide to write my doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the seventeenth century. I wonder why certain playwrights decided to set their tragedies, written in English, in Italian palaces. The thesis will discuss another schism between language and environment. The subject gives me a second reason to study Italian.”
By the time she had conquered the language, she had also written a memoir of that experience entitled, In Other Words, which is as much about the very meaning of language as one’s personal quest to speak in another tongue. The final achievement: she translated Ties for Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante. One might say, the ties that bind.
In Ties, in what might be called a tour de force, Starnone takes the voice of the husband who abandoned his wife and children in Ferrante’s earlier novel. He begins at the beginning, reflecting on the husband’s choices, his wife’s hysteria and the family debacle that ensues, and continues throughout their lives.
This novel centers around a break-in at the apartment where the now elderly couple resides after all these years and all their angst. Their children are grown and still largely estranged from their father, and everything in the apartment has been turned upside down, much like their lives long ago. Nothing appears to be stolen, only the cat is missing, and a small mystery takes over the larger mystery of what keeps people together.
Starnone has crafted a deceptively simple novel about the fragile ties between loved ones, and lovers, and what it takes to repair the damage we do over time. Or not. I will not give anything away, but the ending is simply spectacular.
Bravo to Starnone, and to Ferrante who first crafted these characters, and to Lahiri who has made it possible to share their mysteries. Europa publishes first edition paperbacks, with elegant French flaps and the most artistic covers in the business. Available at Laguna Beach Books.