Jhumpa Lahiri Translates the Fine Print of Aging
A new story in English by Domenico Starnone, the winner of Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Strega
AN INTRODUCTION BY JHUMPA LAHIRI
Scherzetto, the book’s Italian title, means “a minor work or composition.” But there is nothing minor about this novel apart from Mario, who is indeed quite small. Trick is not a story for children, nor is it a novel for those in need of reassurance. Here is the fine print that most of us prefer to ignore as we blunder through life. It warns us that childhood is scary, as is falling in love and getting married, as is old age. We are prey to rage along the way: at one’s parents, one’s offspring, one’s choices, one’s own blood. And there is no escape from fear: of who we really are, of what we see and what we don’t.
The balcony in Trick is a locus of risk and of refuge, of exile as well as freedom. It is rejection of family and origins, and also reeks of those very origins. It is a place where one is permitted to see beyond, to project. The balcony represents the precarious state of everything: youth, fame, relationships, life itself. Anything can break off, plummet at a moment’s notice. This existential anxiety is the mass of air upon which the novel paradoxically rests. The void represents emptiness, death, but also creation. For this is the artist’s habitat: turned away from a secure foundation, creating from nothing.
Scholars and critics will be playing for years with this novel, teasing out its various layers, links, correspondences. As a translator, I, too, had my share of fun. My version of Trick, the first in English, is just one of many that might have been. A translation is nothing if not a process of elimination. For every sentence I constructed, I had to discard numerous possibilities. A translation is also, by definition, the offshoot of a preexisting text. My hope, immodest as it will sound, was to channel Starnone’s style, to write as if he were writing, to somehow copy and paste him into English. This, too, involves something of a trick. A translation surgically alters the text’s identity, insisting upon a foreign linguistic DNA, requiring a transfusion of alternate grammar and syntax. The generational bond between texts is indisputable. One descends from the other, and thus they remain connected, as distinct as they may be. Translation is an act of doubling and converting, and the resulting transformation is precarious, debatable even in its final form. Starnone’s text remains the parent that spawned this translation, but somewhere along the road to its English incarnation, it also became a ghost.
Translator; Author of In Other Words
Jhumpa Lahiri Translates the Fine Print of Aging
by Domenico Starnone
Mario was moving a chair as close as possible to mine.
— Can I use your computer? he asked.
— Don’t even think about it.
I hesitated before sitting down. I was tempted to pick up the cell phone and yell at the publisher: I don’t give a fuck about oxygen, about brightness, tell me in plain words what’s wrong with it, because otherwise I’ll quit the job and forsake the pittance you’ll give me for it, I don’t want to waste time.
But I didn’t do it, and the anguish of old age poked its head up once more. I needed that work, and not for money — my house in Milan and my savings kept me comfortably — but because I was scared to think of myself free from the obligations of work. For at least fifty years I’d moved from one deadline to the next, always under the gun, and the anxiety of failing to suitably tackle one then another, followed by the pleasure of successfully doing just that, was a seesaw without which — I finally confessed to myself outright — I couldn’t bear to picture myself. No, no, better to still keep saying for a while, to acquaintances, to my family, to my son-in-law, above all to myself: I need to work on James, I’m extremely behind, I have to come up with something as soon as possible. Thus, under Mario’s attentive gaze, I resumed examining my sketches, especially the chaotic ones from two nights back.
At first I only did it to calm down. I looked at the pages, I appreciated the good smell of cooking that was entering the room in spite of the closed door, and now and then out of the corner of my eye I kept watch on the boy, who was keeping his word, never scraping his chair, scarcely breathing. The whole time Mario stared at the pages with me, as if we were having a contest to see who would get tired first. But then at a certain point I stopped being aware of him. I got an idea: to use the drawings of the apartment the way it had been many years ago as a backdrop for the New York house in James’s story. The hypothesis stirred me, here was a good way to begin: I’d make rooms on the other side of the ocean, from the 1800s, collide with rooms in a house in Naples, from the mid twentieth century. Great. With my pencil I immediately began to isolate, among the disorder of those crammed, marked-up pages, certain details that seemed useful to me. And my mind fired up so quickly that when Mario called me, feebly — it was a moment in which everything was coming together, I could picture it all vividly — I told him sharply: Be quiet, you promised. But he repeated, softy:
— What was our deal?
— I have to be quiet and not move.
— But I just have to tell you one thing.
— Just one. What is it?
He pointed to a few strokes of the black marker, in a corner on the right side of the page that I was looking over. He said:
— That’s you.
I looked at the drawing, it was an absentminded scribble. Perhaps it represented a young man gripping a knife, maybe a boy with a candle, but in such a vague way, as if my hand had strayed without meaning to into that corner. When had I done it? The other night? A little while ago? The lines writhed swiftly, a flicker that barely presented itself before disappearing. I didn’t dislike it, it reminded me of the stuff I knew how to do when I was a boy, and it moved me that, contrary to my beliefs, I’d captured something from those years — something of what I was able to draw when I lived in that apartment with my parents and my brothers. I’ll use it, I told myself, it’s good. And I asked the boy:
— Do you like it?
— I guess. It sort of scares me.
— It’s not me, it’s a doodle.
— It’s you, Grandpa, I’ll show you.
He slipped down from the chair with a resolute look.
— Where are you going?
— To get the photo album, come, bring the drawing.
He waited for me to get up, taking me by the hand as if we might lose one another. When I opened the living room door, we were assaulted by a cold blast. Evidently Sally, to air things out, to dry the wet floors, had opened every window, and now the apartment was freezing. On top of that, the noise of the traffic, without the protection of the double-paned glass, rose up harshly. We went into my daughter’s study; there, too, the window was wide open, and the racket from outside was suffocating shouts from afar, like someone pounding a rug with a carpet beater. Mario dragged a chair up to a cabinet full of doors. I tried to stop him.
— Tell me where the album is and I’ll get it for you, I told him, but in vain. He relished climbing. He opened one of the doors, turning the key. He pried out an old-fashioned album, dark green, and handed it to me.
— You have to close it up, I reminded him.
He closed it.
— And lock.
Ably he turned the key.
— You’re a dwarf, I told him.
— No, I’m not.
— Yes, that’s exactly what you are, a dwarf.
— It’s not true, I’m a little boy, he said, getting upset.
— All right, sorry, you’re a little boy, Grandpa’s stupid and says stupid things, stupidly. Never mind.
I helped him jump off the chair — but this time he tried to free his hand, he wanted to jump on his own, something I tried to prevent — and when he landed with a little yelp of joy, he asked me:
— Did you mean I’m one of the seven dwarves?
— Yes, I replied. And I explained that he’d been wrong to get offended, it was a compliment, it meant: You’re sensible and wise. Then I set the album on the desk and asked him where the picture he wanted to show me was. I knew the album well: It contained family photographs that had been passed down from my mother to my wife and, when my wife died, to Betta. The child leafed through it with expertise and showed me an image in which I was with my mother and my brothers. I had no memory of it, I must have always looked at it unwillingly. I’d considered every moment of my adolescence a hateful constriction. Surely my father had taken the picture, he looked at us through the camera and we looked at him. Everyone but me was smiling. How old was I? Twelve, thirteen? My face was repugnant: long, thin, unrefined. Time had left every millimeter of the picture intact, apart from my own contours. Or maybe the image had always been like this, and some fault in the developing had damaged only my outline. Nothing about the face and stringy body appeared complete. I had no mouth, no nose, my eyes were hidden by the thick arcing shadow of my brows, my hair dissolved in the albumen of the sky. Of that instant frozen by the camera, I only recognized the flash of hatred for my father. I looked at him without eyes, with aversion, because of his gambling habit, how he’d raised us in poverty, the fury he’d embodied and unleashed onto my mother, onto us, when he didn’t have a hand to play. The aversion had been rendered precisely, and now it repulsed me.
— See how it’s you? Mario said.
— Not really.
He brought my drawing alongside the photograph.
— Don’t lie, Grandpa. It’s you.
— I wasn’t like that, it’s the picture that makes me look that way.
— But that’s exactly how you drew yourself, look. You’re really ugly.
— Yes, indeed, but it’s a bit mean of you to say so.
— Dad says you’re always supposed to tell the truth.
I guessed it was Saverio who had called me ugly, in that picture and perhaps in general. Bodies — these tattered shreds of nature — need affinity to get along, and my son-in-law and I had never managed to feel affinity for one another. I still heard the screams, the carpet pounding was getting louder. I examined the facade of the building across the street, where no one was screaming or beating a carpet. I asked:
— Grandpa, in addition to being ugly, is also a bit deaf. Do you hear that shouting?
Closing the album, he replied:
— Yes, it’s Sally.
— Sally? Why didn’t you say so?
— I didn’t want to bother you.
I pulled on my earlobe, the lobe of my right ear, hoping to improve my hearing. The shouts were coming from the room where we slept. I went to see what was happening, and Mario trailed me as if he already knew. Sally was on the balcony, the glass door was closed. She was banging her hands against the double-paned glass but the blows and her shouts — Grandpa, little Mario! — resounded weakly in the room and throughout the apartment, precisely because of the double-paned glass. I remembered Betta’s warnings: The balcony door didn’t work well. I thought to myself, annoyed: The publisher, Mario, Sally, it’s impossible to concentrate. The woman should have been dealing with me and the child, instead here I was wasting my time because she was scatterbrained. She’d opened every window in the house and then gone onto the balcony without thinking that the wind would have slammed the door shut. And now there she was, shouting for help.
— Stop banging on the glass, I said. We’re here.
— I’ve been calling out for half an hour.
— Oh, come on.
— Can’t you hear?
— I’m a bit deaf.
— You know how to open up?
— Mister Saverio didn’t teach you?
Sally looked dejected and pounded the glass yet again. I felt we had, in that moment, twinned feelings: Both of us exasperated by the time we were wasting, each blaming the other, and this made me feel unexpectedly close to her. Mario on the other hand was getting on my nerves, he wanted to play at every occasion.
— Grandpa, I know how to open it.
I didn’t answer him. I asked Sally:
— Can’t you open it from outside?
— If I could I wouldn’t be calling you. There’s no handle outside.
— What do you mean there’s no handle?
— What do I know, Mister Saverio bought it this way. But to release it from inside all you have to do is pull up, hard, then pull down.
Mario stepped in:
— Get it, Grandpa? You pull this way, then turn that way.
He motioned precisely with his hands, and I repeated after him without even realizing.
— Like that, he said approvingly. Should I get a chair and help you?
— I’ll do it myself.
I set to it but without success. The door wouldn’t open.
— You have to do it hard, as hard as Dad.
— Dad’s young, I’m old.
I tried again. I pushed the handle up and then down, with tremendous resolution. Still nothing.
— I can’t stand here all day, Sally said, starting to fret. I have other houses to get to. Call the fire department.
— What the hell are you talking about?
The child tugged on me, but I ignored him. Then, to attract my attention, he started repeatedly striking my leg with a closed fist.
— I have an idea.
— Keep it to yourself and let me think.
He kept punching my leg. I grunted:
— Sally lowers the bucket and pulls up the empty space. When it’s all gone she climbs over and leaves.
Sally, exasperated, screamed:
— If I don’t get to work they’ll fire me. Please do something. When the door doesn’t open you need a screwdriver.
— Yes, Mario confirmed. Dad opens it with a screwdriver, sometimes. I can help you, should I go get the screwdriver?
— You’ll be of more help if you stop talking.
I was frazzled, I couldn’t concentrate. How long had it been since I’d used a screwdriver, pliers, a wrench? I kept thinking about the scant strokes I’d made at the edge of the page and, at the same time, Mario’s voice, insistent, that drew attention to — rather, that pointed out to me — similarities between those strokes and the teenager in the photo. I was at risk at that age, I did poorly at school, I struggled with Latin. My father had sent me to a small foundry close to our house, a place that no longer existed. For a few months my hand and my mind found new direction, and perhaps the scrawls I’d made had something to do with that period. I need to make sketches like that, I told myself, and I felt that I was ready, my mind wouldn’t let up, it pinned me to my surroundings, rapidly suggesting ideas, not for freeing Sally but for drawing after drawing; I saw them emerge, disappear. I pictured a doodled version of myself as a boy, one who knew how to turn the door handle the right way, and could capably use a screwdriver. I felt I could access that efficient figure without lifting pencil from paper, moving instead directly from the tips of my already gnarled, grease-stained hands, then rising up again through my strong arms and tense neck, until it reached the ugly grin on my face. I had so many versions of those teenagers in mind. That throng was mutations of me between the ages of twelve and twenty, when I stopped growing and found the strength to escape that house. Now I wanted to try a backflip, over more than fifty years of adult work, down down down to the first time I took a stab at creating images. It was almost as if it were really possible to put today’s passionate, red-hot working and reworking behind me and sink into an absolute zero, into a hole in the ice where everything was preserved. I seized the handle, and with rage — rage, not ire — I pushed it, first up, then down. I felt a click, pulled the door, and the door opened.
— About time, Sally sputtered, and returned indoors nearly shouting: I’m out of here, I’m late.
She explained what to do for lunch and for dinner that day and the next, but all the while she spoke only to Mario; I no longer inspired any trust in her. She shut herself in the storeroom, came out looking like an elegant elderly woman, and then off she went.
I sat down on the edge of my bed. Mario quickly removed his shoes, climbed up, and started to jump off of it with squeals of joy, undoing Sally’s work. He asked: Are you going to jump too, Grandpa? The glass door was still wide open, the balcony surged out against a deep-blue sky. I saw a yellowish weed sprouting up from the black, uneven traces of soil between the tiles. I said to the boy:
— You can’t pull up empty space with a bucket, Mario. Don’t you dare play that game you were talking about. The empty space is always there, and if you go over the railing and jump, you die. Didn’t Dad tell you that? All he told you was that I was incredibly ugly?
Then I, too, took off my shoes, I got up on the bed, and we jumped for a while, holding hands. I felt my heart in my chest like a huge ball of live flesh that went up and down from my stomach to my throat and back again.