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The latest novel from Domenico Starnone wrangles its players into a knot of unease. “Trust” puts the focus on a Roman husband and wife, their work, their passions — and their nagging sense of doom, even as things seem ever more solid. The husband, our narrator, suffers the dread worst. A rising star of academics, his books doing well, nonetheless he feels like a sham.
TO BE HUMAN is to be a monster. Domenico Starnone’s fiction revels in this aspect of humanity, particularly his 2019 novel Trust, newly translated into English by Jhumpa Lahiri. Pietro Vella, a vivacious high school teacher, has begun a relationship with his former student, Teresa. During an argument, Teresa proposes an exchange: “Let’s say I tell you a secret, something so awful that I’ve never even told it to myself, but then you have to confide something just as horrible to me, something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it.” That spirit of perversity — the desire to entrust another volatile human being with our personal heart of darkness — sets Pietro’s course.
Like the stories they tell, the titles of Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone’s most recent novels are electrifying in their brevity. Ties, his 12th book and second to be translated into English, by the Pulitzer-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri, told the story of a marriage that should have unravelled but instead stayed in place.
Trick (2018) centred on a precocious four-year-old who spends four days in the care of his grandfather. “Grandpa, I’m gonna play a trick on you,” says the child, before locking the elderly man outside on the balcony in the biting cold. Each novel studies a single relationship; each relationship is contained in the title.
Trust, Starnone’s latest book, beautifully translated again by Lahiri, sets out to keep this singularity at its heart while enriching the narrative with a larger cast of characters and a deeper investigation of preoccupations familiar from his previous works: the rewards and sacrifices of a monogamous life, the risks of self-fashioning, what it means to teach and be taught, the precipitousness of looking back on one’s life.
The central relationship in Trust is between a brilliant student, Teresa, and her revered literature teacher, Pietro. They become lovers and, following a tempestuous fight, agree to reveal their darkest secrets to one another, “something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it”, in a bid to strengthen their bond.
Starnone keeps the secrets hidden, revealing only that Pietro’s is “an affair so embarrassing that I blushed just thinking about it”. The couple break up days later. Pietro’s first-person voice then narrates a successful life lived in spite of the secret, as a teacher and the respected author of two books, with three children and a wife he loves and stays faithful to despite temptation. But it’s a life lived in fear that Teresa will break their trust.
Starnone is married to the writer and translator Anita Raja, who has been reputed to be the novelist Elena Ferrante. Some have even suggested that Starnone himself is the true author. The idea is easily dismissed, but they have interests and skills in common that will delight fans of Ferrante who are yet to read Starnone.
He too portrays unflinchingly the violence, physical and verbal, that can erupt within the closest relationships. His plots also twist, turn and drop (Lahiri astutely compares his writing to a rollercoaster). And he too can close his chapters with the kind of high-drama flourish comparable — in the best way — to a soap opera: just as Pietro feels settled, with his book on the Italian education system about to be published, he writes to Teresa in a fit of fear that she’ll break his trust. The chapter ends with her reply: “You’re scared, huh?”
This precise, cinematic control of time and perspective gives an impressive sense of grandness to such brief novels
Trust is structurally closest to Ties among Starnone’s translated novels: both pull away from the protagonist at the very end, fast-forwarding to the ends of their lives, and switching the perspective to a different character. This precise, cinematic control of time and perspective gives an impressive sense of grandness to such brief novels, and brings with it the aching poignancy of hindsight. Pietro doesn’t write another book. Teresa observes: “I’m a woman who is almost 72 years old [ . . . Pietro is] the only man I’ve loved, and love still.”
At the end, Starnone closes in on the novel’s original conceit: will Teresa reveal his secret to the world in a speech at a prestigious awards ceremony? But this climax feels almost bathetic. The messier revelation that they were happiest with each other is the novel’s more frightening truth.
Trust by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, Europa Editions £12.99/$17, 144 pages