Category Archives: Italian authors

Compelling Tale Of Battle of Wits [book review]


Trick by Domenico Starnone. Translator Jhumpa Lahiri

Two generations collide in an unusual battle of wills in Domenico Starnone’s Trick.

In one corner is Daniele Mallorico, a successful illustrator now in his 70s, widowed and recovering from painful surgery. In the opposite corner is his four-year-old grandson Mario, a force of nature who can’t yet tell the time but has an advanced vocabulary and questioning mind.

Their fight takes place in the apartment of Mario’s parents who’d asked Daniele if he would return to his childhood home in Naples to babysit while they attended a conference.

The old man doesn’t relish the prospect. The apartment is filled with the ghosts of his unhappy adolescence. He worries if he can cope with the child’s demands on his energy levels and his time. And he’s behind with an urgent commission to illustrate a book by Henry James.

He’s hardly settled in to his temporary home when his editor calls to say the drawings submitted so far are not up to scratch. Daniele will have to come up with a new batch of drawings, more energetic and vibrant or the job will go to another illustrator.

Daniele exhausts himself with worry about his diminishing talents. He needs to work. Mario has other ideas. He wants attention. He wants to play tricks.

Over the course of four days Daniele’s patience is tested to the limit as time and again Mario gets the better of his grandfather.

Whirlwind Energy

Domenico Starnone does a superb job in creating the boy’s character. Mario is vulnerable and innocent of course but also intensely annoying as only a precocious child can be at times. All his parent’s ‘right on’ attitudes get played out in the instructions he gives his grandfather on their first day together. Don’t swear, don’t smoke, wash hands, use the right utensils, keep the kitchen tidy.

He proceeded to show me where the oranges were, where the juicer was, how to toast the bread so that it wouldn’t burn and emanate a foul odor that disgusted his father, which shelf held the bags of black tea and green, which cupboard contained the coffeepots, where the teapot was since the saucepan I’d chosen was inadequate, where the placemats were for setting the table. Oh, the quantity of things he said that morning, and with such command.

Oh the quantity of things he said that morning and with such command. … but I was starting to feel trapped by that instruction-manual voice of his…

Crisis of Confidence

It was Daniele however I felt was the more interesting half of the pair. He’s alternatively irritable and indulgent with the child, even putting his own strength to the test to keep Mario amused. The boy is both a source of amusement and of frustration.

“Seeing him go up and down, tirelessly, wore me out. I dragged a chair over to the ladder and sat down, but I forced myself to monitor any tiny faltering in his movements so that I could leap up in time. It was amazing, the amount of energy in his flesh, in his bones, in his blood? Breath, nutrition. Oxygen, water, electromagnetic storms, protein, waste. How he tightened his lips. And the way he looked up, the effort those too short legs had to make in order to span the gaps between the rungs with ease.”

In between battling with Mario, Daniele is also battling with thoughts about his failure to realise the ambitions of his youth. In one beautifully written section he recalls how art had rescued him from the anger of his younger self. Drawing had been his salvation but now he questions whether his work had ever gone beyond the level of mediocrity.

What in the end had I been? Had I merely been part of an avant-garde that had opened the floodgates to today’s throng of creatives? Had I been among the unheralded who, more than half a century ago, had inaugurated an ever growing illusion of greatness?

Small Page Count. Big on Ideas

Trick is a short work, just 140 pages but Domenico Starnone packs a lot within that space. He covers artistic ambition, nature of creative talent; aging and generational clashes.

My edition comes with an appendix which purportes to be notes and sketches composed by Danielle Mallorico. There’s also an introduction by the translator Jhumpa Lahiri which draws parallels between the narrative and the Henry James ghost’ story Danielle is illustrating;  The Jolly Corner. It was interesting to read but if, like me, you don’t know that story, then the allusions are not particularly helpful.

Trick is both amusing and thoughtful. A compelling and rewarding novella from an author I’ve never encountered before. I probably wouldn’t have discovered him if it hadn’t formed part of my subscription to the Asymptote book club.

Around the world in 10 books


This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.

We start our journey in Asia …

  • India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
  • Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
  • China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.

Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America  …

  • Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.

And now we’re en route to Africa …

  • South Africa:  I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child  by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
  • Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.

And finally we land in Europe …

  • Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
  • Hungary:  Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
  • France:  L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’,  had its dark  side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
  • Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’  Food and Italy are inseparable  which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
How are your reading travels going?

If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

NumeroZeroConspiracy theorists will love it. Readers who enjoy pacy satire will love it.  Bibliophiles with a penchant for fiction-fact blended narratives will love it. Umberto Eco’s seventh novel Numero Uno is a pin-sharp playful satire on Italy’s culture of corruption in high places.

Set in Milan in 1992, Eco offers us Colonna, a fifty-something failed writer who takes a job at a new newspaper financed by “Commendatore”, a tycoon, property dealer and would-be media mogul with a plot up his sleeve. Right from his first day Colonna is let in on the secret – this is a newspaper that will never be published. The staff will simply produce:

…twelve zero issues — 0/1, 0/2 and so on — dummy issues printed in a tiny number of exclusive copies that the Commendatore will inspect, before arranging for them to be seen by certain people he knows.

It is quite simply an instrument to help Commendatore out manoeuvre those who stand between him and access to the corridors of power.   The editor in chief tells his new team their boss plans to get into the inner sanctum of finance and banking using the newspaper as a threat. Once they see his new newspaper is “ready to tell the truth about everything” they will be so afraid of what it might reveal, they’ll fling open all doors to him.  Actually truth isn’t going to playing much of a role in this newspaper. Instead of merely reporting the news the Domani newspaper (the title translates as ‘Tomorrow’) will create it, speculating what could happen, how people could react and what they might say and concocting stories and features to fit the speculation. This editorial team is to operate on the principle that

It’s not the news that makes the newspaper, but the newspaper that makes the news And if you know how to put four different news items together then you can offer the reader a fifth.

As the journalists beaver away at fabricating their alternative versions of events, one of their number believes he has stumbled on a genuinely shocking story of a conspiracy involving the country’s foremost political leader. According to Braggadocio, Mussolini was not really executed in the spring of 1945.  Instead, the Allies, or Hitlerite Blackshirts possibly in league with the CIA, duped the Italian population by substituting a body double for the man hanged in a Milanese square in 1945. The real Mussolini was spirited away to Argentina (or maybe the inner corridors of the Vatican) there to become the master mind behind a bomb attack on Bologna railway station in 1980. Braggadocio sets off in pursuit  of proof for his conspiracy theory unaware that he is putting his own life, and those of his fellow reporters, in danger.

The sections dealing with Braggadocio are actually the least interesting elements of this short novel (its comes in at just under 10 pages). The trouble with conspiracy theorists is that they get so wrapped up in their theory, seeing significance in every small fact so they become a bore. Braggadocio unveils his particular theory in long sections of dialogue which describe and analyse Italy’s complex political history. Unless you are particularly interested in Italian politics of the 1940s, you might find you end up skimming many of these episodes,

Where Eco shines is in his portrayal of the newspaper office and its editorial policy.  It is alternatively hilarious and chilling. The editorial team at Domani have little respect for their readers, viewing them as shallow, nitwits. Their readers don’t have books in their homes but can talk with ease about the latest hot title. Crossword puzzles perplex them if they go beyond clues like “The husband of Eve.” They understand so little of what’s going on that the journalists at Domani are told to ensure in their articles they have plenty of expressions like “have our cake and eat it, keep our finger on the pulse, be in the spotlight, make the best of a bad job.

Is Eco is making a serious point rather than simply setting out to entertain his readers? One of the key themes is the underlying sense of corruption and manipulation of power at the heart of Italian politics. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see some parallels between his fictional Commendatory and the real life former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (though of course for legal reasons the latter’s name is never used). Eco’s Commendatore is described as the controller of a vast media empire of TV channels and magazines (just like Berlusconi)  and a man about whom there is much speculation of shady deals (just as Berlusconi was for many years.).

In a country of individuals intent on building power through plots and manipulation of the truth, where can people find the truth? The answer for Eco is clearly not in the media because the Fifth Estate – traditionally the group most able to expose the abuse of power, can itself be corrupted. Instead of exposing wrong doing, they become forces for collusion.  According to the editor in chief of Domani:

… newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition, you add some shock headlines — mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc — so news drowns in a great sea of information.

It’s hard to read that without experiencing the icy sensation of getting rather too close to reality to be comfortable.

End Notes

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco, translated, from the Italian by Richard Dixon, was published in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This is Eco’s seventh novel. My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar

A few years ago I got into a rather intense discussion along the lines of whether there is any association between the currency used by a country and their population’s feeling of national pride and identity. It was prompted by comments from someone in the British government  who was arguing vehemently in favour of Britain keeping the pound sterling as its national currency.  Part of the politician’s argument seemed to be that if Britain adopted the Euro, like other members of the European Community, it would lose a critical element of what makes Britain special. It was an argument that held no merit for my three dinner companions, all of whom came from countries which had already ‘lost’ the peseta and the franc in favour of the Euro.

NewFinnishGrammarIf currency doesn’t define a person’s identity and affiliation to a country, what about language? New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani suggests that without our language, we have no roots and no memory. Don’t be misled by the title, this isn’t a turgid academic study about a fringe language, but an intelligently written novel by a linguist working for the European Community.

The story is quite a simple one. It begins with the discovery of a badly-beaten man on a quayside in Trieste during World War 2.   Though he recovers consciousness he has no memory and no language and nothing to identify himself except for the name tag of “SAMPO KARJALAINEN” sewn inside the seaman’s jacket which suggests he is of Finnish origin. A passing military doctor Petri Friari, resolves to re-aquaint the mystery man with the language of his homeland as a way of restoring his memory and rebuilding his life. Petri tells his patient:

The merest breath is enough if there is still any fire at all beneath the ashes…. You will have to work hard. Finnish is the language in which you were brought up, the language of the lullaby that sent you to sleep each night. Apart from studying it you must learn to love it. think of each word as though it was a magic charm which might open a door to memory. Say each word aloud as though it were a prayer…

Sampo recovers sufficiently to be repatriated to a hospital in his supposed home in Helsinki. There with the aid of another doctor, a pastor who believes in the restorative power of Finnish myths and legends and a Red Cross nurse, he tries to find himself once again. It’s not an easy task. Finnish apparently is a fiendishly difficult language “thorny but delicate.”

…the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in on itself; here meaning ripens slowly and when, when ripe flies off, bright and elusive … whin foreigners listen to a Finn speaking they always have the sense that something is flying out of his moth, the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight…

Sampo meets the challenge head on, diligently applying himself to his lessons everyday but though his vocabulary and understanding improves, his knowledge  of his identity remains elusive.

I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive.

This is a novel about alienation, about isolation, how we relate to our pasts, to our cultural traditions and to our mother tongue. It has an overwhelming sense of sadness, the feeling that no matter how much we try, it’s impossible to find the way back. It’s a book that makes you think and to appreciate the value of the language we heard from our first moments on earth and that we use every day without giving it a second thought.

A wonderful novel, that was considered a masterpiece when it was published in Marani’s native Italian. It’s taken more than 10 years to become available in English but well worth the wait.


New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani. Translator: Judith Landry. Published by Dedalus Books

Marani worked as a linguist for the European Commission. In addition to his writing he created Europanto, a mock international language.


The brooding Inspector Montelbano

Ragusa, Sicily, a prime film location for Inspector Montelbano series

Ragusa, Sicily, a prime film location for Inspector Montelbano series

Inspector Montelbano is one of those television series that starts off in the quieter hours of BBC programming, often on a fringe channel because the schedulers are not really convinced it will be popular with viewers. Initially it had a bit of a cult following but gradually it gained traction as word got spread around by what Malcolm Gladwell calls “the mavens”  The viewing numbers kept rising until it became pretty clear that the adventures of a brooding Scilian detective could be “the next big thing”.

All of this completely escaped my notice since I’m not a big TV viewer and hardly ever look at the upcoming schedules. By the time I got to see an entire episode, the BBC was already showing series three of the original Italian production and the number of visitors to film locations and places mentioned in the books had shot up. Just as the Inspector Morse series gave a tourist boost for Oxford ( though it hardly needed it with all those cupolas and spires) and Brother Cadfael did the same for the town of Shrewsbury on the Wales/England border, the character of Montelbano based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri has created another book induced tourism trail.

As much as I’ve enjoyed tv series like Morse and Cadfael I found the books upon which they were based to be very insubstantial and unsatisfying fare so I wasn’t planning to read any of the Montelbano books. But then I but heard an episode about Camilleri in a BBC radio programme on European masters of crime fiction in which he was described as a writer who weaves social and political commentary into his novels. it sounded as if his Montelbano creation would be  more than a straightforward crime novel, so I decided to take a closer look. An article by the Guardian in which Camilleri  said that social commentary was always his aim and that he “deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel  a critical commentary on my times,”  was all it took for me to rapidly download a few of the series onto the e-reader. I decided to read two of the more recent titles by which time the character of the police offer would have been firmly developed. 

I’ve now read two of the Inspector (or to give him his official titlle, Commissario) Montelbano titles that have been translated into English.

Age of DoubtDance of Seagull
Number 14 in the series is The Age of  Doubt which opens with the Inspector in a dark mood one morning after a dream in which he sees his own death and funeral. The day turns steadily worse with a storm and then the discovery of a disfigured body in the water near   Vigàta. Something is decidedly fishy about the occupants of a nearby luxury yacht. Soon Montelbano is on the trail of diamond smugglers though he can’t give the problem his full attention because there is a rather dishy harbour authority lieutenant that has caught his eye.

Number 15 is Dance of the Seagull which also opens with an omen though of what Montelbano isn’t sure. As the Inspector sits in his porch watching the dawn lift, he sees a seagull fall from the sky, then perform a strange dance before lying down to die. It is not the best start to his intended holiday with girlfriend Livia. The holiday however has to be postponed when news arrives that his close colleague Fazio has failed to return home. It transpires the policeman had been involved in a secret investigation into smuggling and murder. This being Sicily there is the inevitable Mafia connection with which Montelbano has to contend in the desperate search to find his friend and potentially save his life.

Both novels move at a fast pace and involve a multiplicity of set pieces  which would be a dream for any location scouts and directors.  The political and social commentary aspect comes through in Montelbano’s frustrations with the bureaucracy that gets in the way of his investigations and with the way nothing seems to happen on time or as planned.

Was there anything whatsoever in Italy that left or arrived at the scheduled time? The trains ran late, the planes did too, the ferries required the hand of God to sail, the post we won’t even mention, the buses actually got lost in  traffic, public works projects were usually off by five to ten years, any law whatsoever took years before it was passed, trials in the courts were backed up and even television programmes always started a good half hour after the scheduled time….

This is a sentiment that will be familiar to anyone who has holidayed in Italy (it’s even more evident in Sicily where I recall my guidebook comment that local citizens consider laws to be merely ” suggestions”).

Our Commissario isn’t impressed with any aspect of Sicilian life but politicians and the media generate some of his strongest feelings.

No matter what they do, our elected representatives don’t give a **** about public opinion!. They take drugs, go to whores, rob, steal, cheat, sell themselves, commit perjury, make deals with the Mafia, and what happens to them? The newspapers talk about it for, oh three days maybe? Then everybody forgets about it .

Such is his dismay about every aspect of life not just in Sicily but in Italy generally, that he thinks the country;’s constitution should be rewritten. He comes up with his own version so instead of Article 1 declaring that

Italy is a Democratic Republic, founded on work.

Sovereignty belongs to the people, which exercises it in the forms and within the limits of the Constitution.

Montelbano believes it would be more accurate to declare that:

Italy is a republic founded on selling drugs, systematic lateness, and useless chatter.

This portrait of a man who is completely disenchanted with bureaucracy and with public services is one that will strike a chord with many readers even outside of Italy and was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. Equally enjoyable although in a more vicarious way sadly was the way Camillieri tantalises us with descriptions of the meals enjoyed by the Inspector. Salvo Montalbano is passionate about food – he loves to eat and in copious quantities – so if he is not looking in the fridge of his apartment to see what his housekeeper has prepared for him, he’s dropping into his favourite local trattoria to wolf down pasta, calamari, mussels, sole, shrimp. Just reading this book you feel your own waistline beginning to stretch.

The one aspect of these books that didn’t quite work for me was the character of Catarella, the desk sergeant whom Montalbano frequently finds unintelligible because he manages to mangle even the most basic of instructions and messages. I see how this is meant to be funny but the humour relies on showing in English the huge gulf between what Catarella should be saying and what he actually says. How would that work in the original Italian which is the language in which Caterella would clearly be conversing.

For all that however, and the fact the plots are a bit formulaic, I enjoyed the characterisation of the moody, pedantic, bad tempered detective with his wry take on life.

If you’re interested in discovering more about Andrea Camilleri, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal have interesting background articles about his life and work.

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