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Books: Ties by Domenico Starnone translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Author: David Mills
Newspaper: The Times
Date: Mar 6 2017

Aldo and Vanda Minori, both originally from Naples, marry in 1962. He is 20; she is 22. He becomes an academic before moving into television and writing. They have two children, Sandro and Anna. In his mid-thirties, Aldo falls for a much younger university colleague and moves out of the family home. Family ties prove too strong to resist and after a few years he moves back again.

In bald outline, the story of Aldo and Vanda sounds like something from Elena Ferrante’s bestselling Neapolitan novels. They could be one of the couples on the fringes of the academic world that Elena Greco encounters as she escapes from her poverty-stricken neighbourhood — which is interesting, because in 2006 it was suggested that the mysteriously reclusive Ferrante was actually ­Domenico Starnone.

Until that point, Starnone, a moderately successful writer, was best known for his 2001 Naples-based novel Via Gemito, about an artist forced to work on the railways to support his family. This partly autobiographical work is a son’s account of his father’s resentful, violent life. Starnone, born in Naples in 1943, ticked all the right Ferrante boxes — even down to having Italian as his second ­language after Neapolitan. He denied the link, and last year The New York Review of Books revealed convincing evidence that Ferrante was, in fact, an Italian-German translator with a Polish-Jewish background called Anita Raja.

She also happens to be married to Domenico Starnone.

All very fascinating. However, as a novel, the clever, artful Ties could not be more different from ­Ferrante’s soapy saga. In abstract, it is the story of a marriage that has lasted more than 50 years, told from three different points of view. The first section ­comprises Vanda’s letters to her husband Aldo between 1974 and 1978, when he has left her for the younger Lidia. It is the one-sided ­dialogue of a wronged wife lashing out at her errant husband.

The second section then comes as a surprise as we realise we are reading about Aldo and Vanda, who are now approaching their eighties and have been back together for decades. Here the narrative voice is Aldo’s and we are in the present time-setting of the novel. The couple returns from holiday to ­discover that their Rome apartment has been ransacked. The final section, from the point of view of their daughter, Anna, completes the picture and resolves many of the mysteries set up earlier.

The novel is a complex and devastating dissection of a relationship, superbly teased apart and considered from all possible viewpoints. Aldo treasures a blue metal cube “ Prague years ago”. It has a hidden compartment and “protects [his] secrets inside”. Its presence might function as a symbol for the whole marriage, as the grown-up Sandro tells his sister: “In this house there’s visible order, but a disorder that’s real.” This is also precisely how the book works.

On the surface there are smoothly functioning relationships, but underneath all kinds of anger and resentments seethe, unrealised by others. Words for disorder, ruin, collapse and disaster become unexpectedly relevant.

The book’s unfolding structure is so brilliant because it mimics the history and dynamics of the various relationships. The translation by Jhumpa Lahiri is, for the most part, clear and unobtrusive, despite the occasional clunky phrase (“the young man of colour” is more idiomatically “the young black”). Her introduction, on the other hand, is a small masterpiece of self-regard and best read after you’ve finished the novel.

Tension builds through the book, as it does in Michael Haneke’s films Hidden and Amour, with ominous, unsettling occurrences. Aldo twice gets taken in by scammers; then comes the break-in when nothing is stolen but the cat ­vanishes. Linking the narratives is the tying of shoelaces. When he discovers that his young son mimics his peculiar way of tying shoes, Aldo sees it as indissoluble connection and is persuaded to move back in with his family. It later turns out that each person remembers and views this episode very differently.

Ties is an outstanding accomplishment. While only 150 pages long, it has the heft of a novel three times that length, packed as it is with insight and wisdom. There is the lovely way Aldo recognises that his and his wife’s lives have moved on since Vanda wrote her anguished letters to him, “the deranged remnants of a voice she’d shed”. And there is the laying bare of motivations and the coruscating honesty with which the characters are able to understand themselves: Aldo knows he is “just a small anxious man”; Vanda knows that “you loved Lidia as you had never loved me”.

The book is a testament to the great truth it formulates: “As soon as you make an effort to say something clearly, you realise that it’s only clear because you’ve simplified it.”