Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
What a pleasure, two fine writers for the price of one: a thirteenth novel from a contemporary Italian master of fiction, translated by a Pulitzer Prize winning short story maestro and novelist.
Ties has the physique of a novel attired as a novella, but irrespective of its length, the absence of mise-en-scenes and a cast list shorter than a one act play – husband, wife, two kids and a neighbour – its reach is epical.
The novel opens with an evidently distressed middle aged woman berating her husband and father of two children for succumbing to the charms of a much younger mistress. “You think of us as an illness that’s kept you from growing, and without us you hope to make up for it.”
But that is the past and the second part of this triptych opens with our couple much older, wiser and together: they are planning a rare vacation, which in itself becomes a catalyst for a random occurrence of events, or so it would seem.
Starnone is not big on description, and where Lahiri excels in her translation, because dialogue is brief, is replicating the tautness of each sentence, like a tight line in which angler and fish, author and reader, are engaged in an endless act of catch and release.
Often it is akin to looking hard at a Mark Rothko canvas, where nothing appears to be happening, but viscerally you sense the simple expression of a complex thought.
Not easy to conceive, but Starnone passes Lahiri the ball, and she runs with it. Their chemistry is at its most demonstrative in this memorable passage: “I savoured the fortune of being, for a good seventy-four years, a happy transmutation of the sidereal substance that roils in the furnace of the universe, a fragment of living thinking matter, without too many aches and pains to boot, and barely scathed, purely by chance, by misfortune.”
When Robert Lowell translated Giacomo Leopardi, his approach was to keep something of the fire and finish of the originals, whereas Tim Parks learned his trade translating sales brochures for banks.
Lahiri decided to distance herself from Italian, dismantling it and rendering it invisible, of intuiting the meaning of a text. Starnone can be Vivaldi one moment and Wagner the next, but in Lahiri’s dexterous grip the English is a swaying field of fecundity.