Naples draws out hard life lessons

Trick. Domenico Starnone. NewSouth Books. 

When 74-year old Milan sophisticate Daniele Mallarico's daughter Betta rings from Naples to ask if he will look after her 4-year-old son, Mario, while she goes to a conference in Cagliari with her academic husband, Saverio, he is none too pleased.

Daniele is an artist, an illustrator of de luxe editions, and he is struggling to finish plates for Henry James' story The Jolly Corner. He knows that looking after a small boy will not leave him with either the time or peace of mind to bring his commission to a successful conclusion.

In addition, he has been away from Naples for many years and doesn't relish revisiting the family home, an apartment where he spent an unhappy childhood, and where Betta now lives with her husband and son. There are too many ghosts: his wife was unfaithful to him when they lived in Naples, and the city was home to gangsters, fighting for power and money.

In a sense, Daniele felt he had failed the test of masculinity demanded by Neapolitans by becoming an artist; he had deserted the language and brutal demands of the city for the more refined Italian language and petit bourgeois way of the north. He even used a Neapolitan term for the feelings his daughter's request gave rise to - la raggia - an incandescent rage.

He has only contempt for his son-in-law, a professor of mathematics and has little love for his daughter. Betta and Saverio argue ceaselessly in front of their son. Both separately complain to Daniele about the faults of the other.

It all turns out just as Daniele had feared. He cannot finish his drawings. His grandson Mario is an intelligent monster who wants his grandpa to play with him or watch cartoons all day. After inflicting disappointments on each other they reach a compromise by drawing, but then Daniele is further enraged by the fact that Mario has a speed, dexterity and fresh expressiveness that he no longer possesses.

Alone with his grandson, Daniele is forced to face his ghosts: the failure of his marriage, the decline of his talents, his daughter's destructiveness in her relationship, his ageing, as well as the fact that returning to the family home has brought back his realisation that the family has been without distinction in Naples for generations. La raggia is the result.

Recounting the bare facts of the story fails to reveal the wonderful interweaving of rage and tenderness that propels the narrative. Mario is both monstrous and charming in his 4-year-old assurance and lack of distinction between work and play. Daniele may rage but then does his level best to place himself in the mind of the child.

The realities of life, the compromises that must be made, the need to adjust one's desires to the social circumstances in which we are placed, the love and hate between young and old leading to alternate anger and laughter, fuels the almost, but not quite, Jamesian nightmare that this tale, at times, threatens.

A book for grandparents to read as school holidays approach: a warning and a lesson in ultimate forbearance.

 - Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago


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