The cover of Ties by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, depicts a pair of male brogues tied to each other by their laces, with their wearer about to trip. Concerning a marital breakdown, it alternates the wife’s, husband’s and daughter’s viewpoints, spanning 45 years. ‘For a long time you reasoned with pedantic calm about the roles we were imprisoned in by getting married – husband, wife, mother, father, children – and you described us – me, you, our children – as gears in a senseless machine, bound always to repeat the same foolish moves,’ says the wife to the husband at the novel’s beginning. Do our roles entrap us, the narrative asks? Do we become them, or is our ‘identity’ separate? Can we ever know those closest to us? Or do we spend years acting a part?
Control is another important factor: the wife’s desire to control ultimately results in chaos, and objects are used to define and delimit desires and identities. Mum and Dad never throw anything away, the daughter complains. ‘It’s their way of leaving some trace … of their lives,’ replies her brother. In this they resemble the Jewish, pre-Second World War family in the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, who use objects, uselessly as it turns out, to memorialise their lives. ‘In so many ways, the Finzi-Continis foreshadow the modern consumer’s obsession with control and space, with possessing the whole world in the safe domestic space, shutting out reality, living in a state of denial,’ write Tim Parks in A Literary Tour of Italy. It is as if the Italian obsession with bella figura, with fashion, design, style and surface appearance, stems from the need to play a role in order to hide a deep sense of emptiness and insecurity.