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Compelling Tale Of Battle of Wits [book review]

Trick

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.

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