Author, Book review, Books in translation, Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone


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.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Leavetaking’ by John McGahern


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 176  pages; 2000.

First published in 1974, John McGahern revised The Leavetaking, his third novel, a decade later because he thought it “lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess”. The result is a tautly written novel composed of two halves, each radically different to the other.

Essentially it is a love story, about a teacher, Patrick, who is facing dismissal by the school authorities for marrying an American divorcee while on a year’s sabbatical in England. A battle of wills ensues: he won’t resign because he does not feel he has done anything wrong; the church won’t recognise his marriage and make it ‘holy’. His wife, meanwhile, is holed up in rooms in Howth, a seaside suburb of Dublin, happily going about her business until they are found out.

Part One of The Leavetaking is set during the last day of Patrick’s life as a teacher. Knowing that he will be sacked at the end of the day, he recalls how he first fell into teaching, the ‘second priesthood’, when he realised he loved women too much to become a priest. As he reminisces about his past he also recalls his childhood, his parent’s unusual relationship and then his mother’s untimely death. (Having recently read McGahern’s Memoir it is safe to say that the first part of this novel is largely autobiographical.)

Part Two, which is a far more enjoyable and easier read, revolves around Patrick’s adventures in London while on a 12-month leave of absence from the school. Here he meets Isobel, a tall American divorcee, who is the same age as him but comes from a vastly different background. She is tied to the purse strings of her smooth-talking but morally corrupt father, but eventually comes to realise it is time she stood on her own two feet. When the couple marry and return to Ireland, that’s when their troubles begin…

While this book is infused with a deep melancholia it is nowhere near as dark as his previous two offerings, The Barracks and The Dark. Given that McGahern himself faced dismissal as a teacher under similar circumstances I am surprised at the restraint shown here; there’s no malice, no anger, just a quiet understated calm.

His graceful but carefully considered prose is a delight, and his ability to capture period and place is so pitch-perfect you swear you could be standing in that flat-roofed concrete schoolroom or walking on the hill path overlooking the sea at Howth even though you are not.

Ultimately The Leavetaking is a quick read, but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. There is a lot to consider here about vocation, familial relationships, marriage, the Church and 1970s Ireland. I imagine that this slim book could be hungrily devoured over and over, and new meanings, new insights could be gained with each reading. In short, a lovely book about love.