omenico Starnone’s fourteenth novel Trick is a case of The Turn of the Screw- driver: the plot hinges on whether one can be found and our narrator, Daniele Mallar- ico, released from an unsettling trap. But it is a different ghostly tale by Henry James – “The Jolly Corner” – that gives Starnone the outline for his story, in which a man revisits his former home and is haunted by might-have-beens. James has Spencer Brydon, returning to New York, reflecting on “the ugly things of his fara- way youth”; as Starnone’s Mallarico leaves Milan to travel back to his home city of Naples, he anticipates “the ghosts that now dart around the rooms of my adolescence”.
Starnone is the husband of the translator Anita Raja, who, it was claimed last year, is behind the pen name Elena Ferrante. Both Fer- rante’s and Starnone’s characters share a fearful fascination with Naples: a place from which you escape and are dragged unwillingly back.
Mallarico is a respected book illustrator in his seventies wrestling with sketches for a folio edition of “The Jolly Corner”. Betta – Mallarico’s daughter, Mario’s mother – and her husband Saverio are preparing for an academic conference in Milan, and “Grandpa” (he resents the name) is to babysit for the weekend. Mario, a Horrid Henry with the looks of a Raphael cherub, will do anything to keep Grandpa from his felt-tips. “[He had] a certain ingenuity of restlessness”, writes James of Miles, the governess’s charge in The Turn of the Screw. You could say the same about Mario. Certainly he is naughty, as well as impressively artistic. But is he actually diabolic?
In her introduction, Jhumpa Lahiri, who pre- viously translated Starnone’s Ties (TLS, April 18, 2017), explains that the novel’s Italian title, Scherzetto, is a slippery word. It might mean “trick”, “joke”, “kid”, “trump card”, “wild card”, “jester” or “clown”. It could be “gotcha” or “you’re kidding”. “It’s about how you feel when the joke’s on you.” At Halloween Italian children say, “Dolcetto o Scherzetto” – “Treat or trick”. There is much play in Starnone’s novel of beating on doors, asking for kindness, receiving none. While Lahiri is an insightful guide to the translation, her exposition is some- what overblown: “The balcony, in Trick, is a locus of risk and of refuge, of exile as well as freedom. It is rejection of family and origins, and also reeks of those very origins. It is a place where one is permitted to see beyond, to project . . .”. That’s a lot of metaphor for one balcony to bear.
Trick is a knotty tale. Mario is sweet, then sinister; Mallarico unreliable, paranoid and out- witted. His imagination plays tricks on him. He sees strange shapes and faces in the walls. Is this old age, the after-effects of an operation, or are there really ghosts and shadows in the rooms?
When Mallarico gives Mario a book of fairy tales he has illustrated, Mario repays him with a shove on to the balcony – like Hansel pushing the witch into her own oven. Trick is a chillingly weird chamber piece - a very tricksy treat.