Domenico Starnone’s thirteenth novel, which in Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation will earn him the overdue attention of the English-speaking world, is a tight tale of domestic carnage. The cast is composed of Vanda, her husband Aldo, their son and daughter, and the man who lives downstairs. There is also, importantly, a cat called Labes, which Aldo claims is short for La Bestia (“the beast”), but which means, in Latin, “fall”, “landslide”, “calamity”. Calamity strikes twice in the novel: first in the 1970s, when Aldo temporarily leaves Vanda for a younger woman (who remains off-stage throughout); and again forty years later when, the couple now in their seventies, their home is mysteriously ransacked. There are two props: a cache of furious letters, sent by Vanda to Aldo during his affair and read by him in old age (“It’s as if you’ve stuck your hand down my throat and pulled, pulled, pulled to the point of ripping my heart out”), and a collection of intimate photographs hidden by Aldo in the interior of a metal cube.
The book’s central image is of Aldo teaching his daughter to tie her shoelaces in a way that is unique to him, and the cover illustration shows a pair of shoes whose laces are knotted together, seemingly without the knowledge of the wearer who is about to fall on his face. The point is clear: the ties that bind us are also a form of bondage. “My life was totally fulfilled without them”, Aldo says of the years in which he left his family.
As the novel moves between the past and present, its events are variously seen through the eyes of Vanda, Aldo and their damaged offspring. In her translator’s introduction, Lahiri compares the narrative frames to a series of Chinese boxes, and the effect is to place the reader in a state of negative capability: we might want to hurl our moral outrage at Aldo for his selfishness and Vanda for her self-pity but we find ourselves content in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts. Instead of tying everything up, Starnone leaves the novel open-ended.
The first voice we hear is that of the abandoned Vanda repeating to her husband the order of things. “In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you I am your wife.” The lines that follow, reflects the now elderly Aldo, “are her and not her, remnants of a voice she’d shed”. Aldo’s sentences are also him and not him: “Let’s proceed in order”, he says at the start of his own narrative, having been beaten into submission by his wife’s insistence on ordered proceedings. The chaos of the couple’s internal lives resides in this continued respect for regulation. While their home in Naples is run with military precision, emotional chaos is secreted in forgotten letters and metal cubes.
Ties is at the same time a lethal critique of domestic “order” and a very ordered book. It has, moveover – like Aldo himself – a double life. The novel is a two-handed trick; its Chinese boxes are contained by yet another – external – narrative frame. When the book was first published in Italy in 2014, it was thought by some that Domenico Starnone was the identity behind Elena Ferrante. The two authors were, after all, published by the same publisher (Einaudi) and Ties was clearly tied to Ferrante’s second novel, The Days of Abandonment, another tale of domestic carnage involving an abandoned wife – whose ferocity is indistinguishable from that of Vanda – her errant husband, their children, the man downstairs and the family pet. When Starnone was asked about the similarity between the two novels he said this: “Put yourself in my shoes. I have a project in mind. Since the world believes that I am Ferrante, I have to throw it away?”
The English translation of Ties follows the apparent revelation that it is not Starnone but his wife, Anita Raja, who is the author known as Ferrante. So behind this canny tale lies another set of ties and another challenge – in Ferrante’s decision to absent herself from the media circus – to ordered proceedings. “I have”, as Starnone once put it, “an ironic relation to writing.”