The House on the Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone

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Translated by Oonagh Stransky

Review by Rob Spence

The British are not receptive to literature in translation. Sure, any decent bookshop will have a smattering of foreign classics – Proust, Mann, Calvino, perhaps – but very little in the way of contemporary non-Anglophone work. In contrast, anyone visiting a bookshop in Italy or Germany will be confronted with many books recently translated from the English, and often, many books in the original English too. It’s a welcome trend, therefore, that independent presses in the UK are now publishing more work in translation, and therefore placing some important literature before the British public. Fitzcarraldo Editions and Istros are among the publishers in the vanguard, but the book under consideration here is published by another independent dedicated to works in translation, Europa Editions.

The House on Via Gemito was first published, to great acclaim, in 2000, and was the winner of Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Strega. That it has taken over two decades to be translated says much about the insularity of the British publishing scene, but we can be grateful that Europa has added this lengthy volume to its collection of books by Starnone, a prolific author, who still is suspected by some as being the author of the Elena Ferrante novels. Like Ferrante, he writes primarily about the lives of ordinary people in Naples, though in this novel he is very close to writing a memoir. The House on Via Gemito is what the critic Max Saunders would call “autobiografiction”: the narrative is presented as a novel, but it is clear that the author is recounting, or re-imagining, elements of his own life. Of course, authors have always done this – James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria quartet, for instance, manifestly depend very heavily on the author’s own life experiences. In this case, the parallels are so foregrounded that at times, the reader feels that this is an autobiography, or perhaps a biography, because the central character is not the author, but his father.

Domenico (Mimì for short) presents a warts-and-all portrait of his father, Federì, a self-taught painter, whose consuming passion for his work overrides everything else in his life. In the Naples of the immediate post-war years, he resents his life as a worker on the railway, and dedicates all his time and energy to producing the paintings that he hopes will immortalise his name. He neglects and abuses his wife, Rusinè, and largely ignores their growing family. He is perpetually angry, picking fights both literal and metaphorical with everyone he meets. His ego is colossal, and his jealousy of epic proportions. Starnone does not, however, portray his father’s history straightforwardly; rather, it is framed by the mature son’s quest, in a visit to Naples after his father’s death, to recapture some of that history. To further complicate matters, he is never sure of the veracity of his memories, and so the novel dramatises his own doubts about the dramatic events of his childhood. 

Starnone moves from vividly realised accounts of his father’s violence in the 1950s as he takes out his frustrations on his wife in the eponymous house on Via Gemito, to third-person narratives of his father’s own brutal childhood, and back to the agonies of his own adolescence. The tone is set from the opening sentences: “When my father told me he hit my mother only once in twenty-three years of marriage, I didn’t even bother replying. A long time had passed since I challenged any of his stories, with their fabricated events, dates and details.”  The novel represents an attempt (a failed one, naturally) to arrive at some sort of truth about his father and mother’s life, and his own upbringing.  A central motif is a painting of his father’s, “I bevitori” (“The Drinkers”) for which Mimí poses, and for which he searches, as a middle-aged man. In the novel, as in real life, it hangs in the council chamber at Positano, and features on the cover of this new edition. The painting’s long gestation, and the author’s part in it, encapsulates the miseries of life with his father, and his obsessive nature.

The Naples of this novel is a place of casual violence, suffocating love, grinding poverty and joyous celebration. Starnone is brilliant at describing the small details that define the place, often channelling Federì’s painterly eye to capture the essence and spirit of the time. Oonagh Stransky’s translation is impressive: she has to cope with a good deal of Neapolitan dialect, and to manage some English equivalents to the inventive and scatological obscenities of Federì. As a grumpy old Englishman, I felt that sometimes, his rants seemed more like extracts from The Godfather or some other American film, with Federì voiced by Al Pacino or Robert de Niro. But the translator is American, and there’s no reason why the vernacular language shouldn’t be rendered as American slang.

This novel is a major work, and it is good that finally it can have an English-speaking readership. Starnone deserves his status as a major Italian writer, and this book will help to establish his reputation beyond his homeland.

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Rob Spence writes at robspence.org.uk

Domenico Starnone, trans. Oonagh Stransky, The House on Via Gemito (Europa Editions, 2023). 978-1787704534, 451pp., paperback.

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