“–Grandpa, I’m gonna play a trick on you.”
In the blurb to Domenico Starnone’s Trick the reader is asked to “Imagine a duel between two men” – and it’s impossible to read this book without doing exactly that. At the heart of it Trick is a clash, a conflict between a grandfather and the grandson he’s roped into babysitting. The grandfather is Daniel Mallarico, a seventy-five year old illustrator of fame, sinking cantankerous and disillusioned into his twilight years, as his both his stature as a man and an artist wither with age. The grandson is Mario, a four-year old kid, and like any other, filled with limitless energy, excitement, and curiosity. In short, everything the senior Mallarico lacks. As the story unfolds their conflict takes many forms, a physical collision, a war of words, but it’s also psychological, even spiritual, a skirmish between two philosophies of being, as distant and as disparate as the age gap between them.
Ultimately their conflict is surmised by the title, a ‘trick’, the trickster is Mario, and Mallarico the victim, who in being confronted by his grandson’s boundless vitality, is at once mystified and outwitted, danced around and toyed with. By Mario, Mallarico finds his very identity challenged, as both a man and an artist, reflecting on his career in his twilight years and facing growing anxiety over his dwindling reputation as an illustrator.
The story takes place in Mallarico’s former family home, an apartment in the centre of Naples. It’s a city whose energy Starnone injects into the text in powerful ways, immersing the story with a penetrating perspective that could only have been derived from a Neapolitan writer. Here, Mario and Mallarico find themselves both proverbial prisoners, with the ghosts of Mallarico’s past, often more corporeal than not, lending the house an eerie and often disturbing aura, and adding fuel to his introspections that regularly punctuate the narrative.
But Trick is not about quiet reflection, instead Starnone’s story bursts with loud, powerful emotion. The narrator’s feelings are strongly felt; his “raggia”, rage, as Mallarico is confronted by shame, inadequacy, frustration, but also profound moments of joy, calm, and reconciliation. Nor is its domestic setting lacking for thrills or suspense, instead Mario and Mallarico’s clashes are a constant source of arresting friction, the two surrounded by Starnone with an impassioned cast of characters, from their belligerent neighbours five floors down, to Mario’s absentee parents responsible for their marooning, whose contentious marriage looms over the text.
This is a short and energetic book, stylishly done, at once charming and electric, and certainly worth a read.
Trick is out now from Europa Editions (£11.99, p/b, 9781609454449)