‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone

First-execution

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 173 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer, rumoured, at one stage, as being Elena Ferrante, the writer of the Neapolitan series of four novels — My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — whose identity has remained secret. Having read My Brilliant Friend (yet to be reviewed) I can see how that theory might have come about.

Starnone’s novel, First Execution, posits the idea that education shapes our world view, just as Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend. He also depicts a relatively violent world, where emotional restraint is in short supply, one that is deeply divided between the rich and the poor. This is something Ferrante does, too. Are they one and the same author? Who knows? To be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The Execution is a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice — among others — and I came away from it feeling as if my mind was slightly blown. This is a good thing.

Mild-mannered man caught up in bigger events

The book opens with a retired teacher, 67-year-old Domenico Stasi (note the similarity to the author’s own name) finding out that Nina, a former pupil, has been charged with “armed conspiracy”. Stasi, who taught his students to fight for what they believed in, feels partially responsible — did he contribute to Nina’s desire to become a terrorist?

To appease his own sense of (misguided) guilt, he visits her — they have coffee together in a cafe — but then finds himself caught up in Nina’s world:

She asked me to go to the apartment of a friend of hers. The apartment had been empty for some time, her friend was overseas, she handed me the keys. On the bookshelves in the living room I would find a copy of The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch. On page 46 a few words had been underlined. I was to transcribe those words and place the sheet of paper in an envelope. Soon, someone would show up and ask for the envelope. That was all.

This puts Stasi in a difficult position: should he do it, or say no?  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he declined, but the narrative that unfurls from this one decision is quite unexpected, for the author inserts himself into the story — Paul Auster style — and we learn how he struggles to write the very pages we are reading. It’s slightly disconcerting and disorienting to suddenly have Domenico Starnone tell us about his creation Domenico Stasi, but it’s a clever device for exploring the lines between fiction and reality and how the two can sometimes mix.

As the narrative slips backwards and forward between the two voices of the two Domenicos — sometimes this is seamless, at other times it’s quite a jolt — we are taken on an electrifying ride that feels like a psychological thriller on one level and a deeply philosophical mediation about the state of the world on another. Indeed, it’s a weird kind of page turner in the sense that you want to find out what happens next — will Domenico get himself arrested or badly hurt or perhaps even killed? — but at the same time you’re forced to contemplate all kinds of issues, including war, violence, capitalism, socialism, religion, education, what it is to get old and the lines between guilt and innocence.

Personal responsibility

A constant refrain is to what extent we bear personality responsibility for the state of the society we live in. If we are unhappy about the divide between the rich and the poor, or the injustices that go on around us, do we become complicit if we do nothing about the situation? And if we do decide to do something, is it ever okay to be violent, to rise up against the powers that be and perhaps take innocent people’s lives to make a point?

Stasi, in particular, often muses about the need to make a decision, because indifference simply breeds more problems down the line — in other words, the past always catches up with the future.

I spent a lot of time underlining lengthy paragraphs in this book because they so eloquently captured my own thoughts about justice and poverty, for instance, and I came away from this rather clever novel feeling a slightly richer person for having read it.

Finally, I should add that if you liked Laurent Binet’s HHhH, then you may well enjoy this one too.

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9 thoughts on “‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone

  1. I love the sound of this, that theme of personal responsibility particularly a fascinating one. The Ferrante speculation is an interesting one too, I still have book 3 in the Neapolitan series to read.

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    • I didn’t know about the Ferrante rumour until I googled his name to find out more about him. I must admit to not liking My Brilliant Friend very much (I plan on reviewing it to explain why) so was mildly surprised to find the connection.

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    • I have to be honest and wasn’t sure about this to begin with, especially when I got to chapter 2 and the author inserted himself into the story, but once I understood the “concept” of the book (that it was post modern) I really got into it.

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    • I wasn’t a massive fan of HHhH, but The Execution is similar in style and approach, so I suspect that if you like what Laurent Binet is trying to achieve you’d like this one too. It’s not quite as complicated and there’s a tinge of humour in it too, which may partly explain why I liked The Execution a lot.

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  2. Very interesting! I just finished My Brilliant Friend and I actually very much enjoyed it, so I wonder if I should pick this one up eventually. I had no idea that the real identity of Elena Ferrante was unknown until a few weeks ago when I read a review of another Ferrante novel, The Days of Abandonment. I git about halfway through HHhH–no problem with the novel, just got distracted by other things–so I need to get back to that one soon, too.

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    • I must admit to not liking My Brilliant Friend very much (I’ll review it eventually) and we had a good debate at our book club as to whether she was actually a man or a woman. But the Europa UK publicist, whom I know, stresses that Elena Ferrante is a woman NOT a man, she just happens to write using a pseudonym and prefers to keep out of the limelight. I can’t really argue with that.

      I also admit that I didn’t particularly like HHhH either, but the idea of an author inserting himself into a story and explaining the difficulties associated with writing are similar. I think First Execution is more playful though — and there’s a neat little twist at the end.

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  3. Pingback: ‘A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst’ by Matt Birkbeck | Reading Matters

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