Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a novel about the short and long-term effect of the first grand infidelity, on a couple, on their adult children and even on the life of their cat.

As I began to read, I had a strange feeling of deja vu, or should I say deja lu, the voice of the woman who writes the letters in the opening chapters isn’t the same, but the premise of her abandonment, being left with two children, it’s as if this novel reignited elements of how I imagined Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I read last summer.

I found myself back there, in the same apartment, experiencing the same circumstances, only these were not the reflections of the same woman, nor of the same writer – well no – this is a man writing these letters from a woman (Vanda) and then in a voice that rings more true, that of the man (Aldo) who abandons, who wanted to suspend the life he found himself in, in pursuit of something that claimed nothing more than pleasure from him.

In Ferrante’s devastating, gripping novel, the voice of the wife takes hold of the reader from the outset, she is calm and rational, appearing reasonable on the outside, all the while anger and rage builds inside her like a furnace. We enter the narrative in this safe space, then feel it slowly disintegrate as that raging inferno can no longer be contained and erupts, spilling hazardously into reality.

In contrast Starnone’s protagonist Vanda, through excerpts from a few of the letters she wrote Aldo, that he rereads  40 years after they were written, is angry, opinionated and doesn’t hold back from sharing any of the catastrophic thoughts that come to her, about the damage he has done and is doing to her and the children.

The narrative structure is interesting, as the story is set around the departure and return of Vanda and Aldo from a holiday at the sea. They are in their 70’s and for the week they will be away, they’ve asked their adult children, who no longer speak to each other, to feed the cat.

The three parts of the novel encompass, book one, the letters Vanda wrote when her husband left her, book two, the departure for the holiday and the return narrated by Aldo, within which he deconstructs the marriage and his part in it. The return to their apartment and the circumstance they find themselves in, evoking in him a long period of contemplation, going over events, memories and perceptions as he tries to understand how it all came to this.

I held back. In general, faced with difficult situations, I slow down; I try to avoid making the wrong moves. She, on the other hand, after a moment of bewilderment, dives headfirst into terror, fighting it with everything she’s got. She’s always behaved this way, ever since I’ve known her, and it was what she did now.

There is one scene where Aldo discovers an old photo of Vanda and it is as if he sees her for the first time, he sees something of the essence of her in youth, and now fifty years later, has a partial realisation of what he has lost, of what he has failed to see, and by doing so, has extinguished in her.

I recognised the features of that period: flimsy clothes she sewed herself, scuffed shoes with worn-out heels, no make-up on her large eyes. What I didn’t recognise on the other hand, was her youth. This, then, was what was alien to me: her youth. In those pictures Vanda radiated a glow which – I discovered – I had no recollection of, not even a spark that allowed me to say: Yes she used to be like this.

And book three, narrated by the daughter Anna, on one of the alternate days she has agreed to feed the cat, convincing her brother who she hasn’t seen since he was favoured in her Aunt’s will years ago, to meet her there.

The novel is called Ties, a translation of Lacci or laces, which has a double meaning in Italian, meaning both the cords that we use to tie shoes and the connections or bonds between people and or things, a metaphor for the ties that continue to bind despite separation, distance, change, age. There are attempts to let go, by all the characters, attempts to distance, to free themselves of the bonds that tie, but none that really succeed. In some, the attempt to separate will result in the creation of new and more numerous ties, the son Sandro moves from one relationship to another, each resulting in another child.

It’s an intriguing novel, with what I felt was a slightly bizarre and unexpected ending. The story invoked immediate comparisons with The Days of Abandonment, however the experience of reading this novel was like viewing these lives from the outside, like looking at things from a distance, provoking a more questioning response, whereas Ferrante’s novel succeeds in transporting the reader into the narrative, it’s more cathartic and slightly terrifying, as she brings you to the edge of sanity, making you sense the danger in letting that temporary instability be observed by the outside world, a situation that many women in past centuries were indeed committed to asylums for, provoked as they often were by the cool, insensitive abandonment of the patriarch.

P.S. After reading the novel and writing the review, I’ve since seen a couple of articles that speculate 1), that Domenico Starnone might be Elena Ferrante (I don’t think so) and 2), that he may be married to the woman who uses the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante. Whether or not the latter is true, there is indeed a link between the two novels, the literary comparison of more interest than the pursuit of the personal lives of authors who wish to remain anonymous and separate from their work.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me with a copy of Ties.

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Gogol, The Namesake

I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ from the library recently, I seem to have read her work in reverse order, starting with her most recent collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ a collection of stories of the experience of second generation immigrants and moving eventually to the book that won the prize.

As I mention in one of my first (and most read) blog posts ‘Why People Don’t Read Short Stories’, it is not my habit to read a short story collection straight through, I stop and start and read them at random and so it has been with both these enticing volumes.

I noticed the bookshop book club was reading ‘The Namesake’ this month and I had just read an excellent essay by Lahiri in the New York Times called ‘My Life’s Sentences’ relating to her love of certain paragraphs in books and the construction of a sentence, so I decided to read her only novel ‘The Namesake’ which had been on the shelf since seeing the Mira Nair directed film a few years ago, which I loved.

‘The Namesake’ refers to Gogol, the Bengali son of the Ganguli family who immigrate to America, a consequence of Ashoke’s (Gogol’s father) changed outlook on life following a serious train accident, a catalyst for change that impacts and shapes the lives of all his family, an event that he does not speak of to his son until he is an adult.

The train is used as a metaphor for change in the novel, many of the significant turning points in the lives of the characters take place during a train journey, which in itself transports people physically from the familiar to a less familiar location and is an environment that one usually cannot escape from.

Not speaking about things is common among these characters, aided by the distant third person narrative which skips from the present to the past, in particular the most dramatic events are seen through the prism of the past, drawing the reader into this protective shield from potentially harmful events.

Gogol, is American, but his Russian name, his Bengali family and their culture mark him as different to many in his community. His home life is different to the average neighbourhood child and he finds himself like many children of immigrants and third culture kids, living between two worlds.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all grow up seeking to affirm our sense of personal and group identity, absorbing those questions of Who am I? Where do I belong? Traditionally, the family and the community reflect that notion and it is not until we step outside those comfort zones that we might question it. But for children growing up among worlds and between cultures the awareness comes much earlier.

For most of his life once he becomes aware of the differences, Gogol does what he can to minimise them, seeking out the ordinary, trying to blend in. He tries to suppress his cultural links, portrayed through his choice of girlfriend and change of name.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Like Lahiri’s short stories, which portray composites of life for immigrants of first or second generations from India, this book highlights one family’s experience, the dilemmas that each generation face which will mould their characters. We follow Gogol’s journey, try to understand it, imaging ourselves in the shoes of another, witness to the culture clash within this one family.

I consider briefly the clash of cultures within my own small family and understand the inclination to put it toward the back of mind. Writing is a good option for expressing the pathways of these experiences. I wonder if the presence of a large community from the parent culture assists or hinders integration. I find these stories leave many more questions than answers; there is no guide, just individual experience and the necessity to persevere, to survive.