On the shelf
Translation by Jhumpa Lahiri
Europe: 144 pages, $ 17.
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Three years of passionate, stormy and obsessive romance Teresa Quadraro concludes a contract with Pietro Vella. “Let’s say I’m telling you a secret, something so terrible that I never told myself,” she suggests, “but then you have to confide in me about something just as terrible, something that will ruin your life. if anyone comes to know this. “Each lover confesses something terrible to another, but not to the reader.
They soon parted ways. Teresa, who was Pietro’s adoring student in Roman high school, becomes an internationally renowned scholar in the United States. Although they correspond from time to time, they only appear twice in the next five decades.
The first section of Domenico Starnone’s Confidence, a short, poignant novel that cuts like a scalpel into the essence of the characters, is narrated by Pietro. The son of a working-class father who burned with indignation at his place in the social hierarchy, Pietro limits his ambitions, suffering from low self-esteem and fear that a temperamental woman could ruin his life. “I realized with great clarity,” he explains, “that I did not base my life on the basis of great ambition just because if I were imperfect in the little things of a trivial life, how the hell would I handle the important ones? issues of important life. “
Accordingly, Pietro taught literature throughout his life in an inconspicuous public high school. However, after a book publisher invites him to expand his ideas on educational reform, he suddenly becomes a minor intellectual celebrity. His wife Nadia, a math teacher, is outraged by the message he spreads in lectures that public education in Italy is worse than useless – that it actually exacerbates social inequality – even as he continues to teach in the system.
Jumpa Lahiri’s decision to translate Starnone is a tribute to the author, whom she calls “the best Italian writer alive today; I really feel like there is no one who writes fiction that is as beautiful, interesting, beautiful and powerful. ” “Trust” after “Ties” (2017) and “Tricks” (2018), Starnone’s third novel, each of which is a tense, condensed drama of conflicting representations, which an American author has translated into English. (Expanding her reach into the accepted language, Lahiri published her Italian debut Dove mi trovo in 2018 and translated it herself as Locality last year.)
The alliteration “Ties”, “Trick” and “Trust” are entirely Lahiri’s inventions, as the names in Italian are, respectively, “Lacci” (laces), “Sherzetto” (joke) and “Confidenza” (confidence). There is no evidence that Starone, a prolific writer, journalist, and screenwriter, wanted these particular books to be read by the group, but Lahiri’s choice marks them as an actual trilogy of deception and self-deception.
While many find Pietro irresistible, he stubbornly doubts himself. His adult daughter Emma, who narrates the second part of “Trust” and adores him for his “kind heart and sharp mind”, does not pay attention to personal flaws, about which he is too well aware. Teresa, now old and frail, living in New York, recounts the third and final part; she is still in love with Pietro, but has a more ambivalent attitude towards his character. “I have never met a person who is so full of life,” she says, “who was more afraid of his own enchanting fullness.”
These multiple storytellers allow Starnone to build a Rasomon-like narrative structure in which the truth about Pietro transcends all three stories. Explicit references to deceit warn the reader that no one is completely reliable. Teresa recalls the lesson she learned from her old teacher that “to tell a story is to lie, and the better the liar, the better the storyteller.” However, Starnone is not so interested in epistemological exercises or the hoary paradox that art is a lie that tells the truth. Trust is more about exposing the fragile foundation on which we build our independence.
Seducing Nadia, Pietro assures her that she doesn’t need to tell her then-boyfriend about their relationship. “Lying is the salvation of humanity,” he insists. Yet salvation eludes Pietro. He cannot accept the self-deception that makes life bearable. Or worse, his self-deception makes his life atolerant; he defines himself as his worst moment – the secret he revealed to Teresa. Like Hawthorne’s character forever branded – and cursed – with a mole, a black veil, or a scarlet letter, Pietro is haunted by the fear that his ugly personal truth will be revealed.
Though thousands of miles and tens of years separate them, Teresa remains what Pietro calls his “ghostly consort,” a more significant force in his life than Nadia, who stays with him throughout his life. He is constantly intimidated by the possibility that at any moment Teresa might reveal his secret. So it’s not Teresa that haunts him so much as his own dark vision of himself.
In an afterword to Confidence, Lahiri explains why she chose not to use the related English word confidence as the title of her translation. While the Italian word also suggests something overt, such as the gruesome secrets Pietro and Teresa share, its main connotations are cockiness and cockiness, qualities that are clearly lacking in an apparently insecure schoolteacher. Starnone earned readers’ trust with yet another nimble analysis of fragile humanity. And Lahiri, whose award-winning fiction has made her one of the most notable figures in contemporary American literature, continues her humble but insanely ambitious project of disappearing into another language and into the prose of another writer.
Kellman’s most recent books are Wandering Prose: Essays and Agile Languages: Reflections on Literary Translinguism.