Trust, by Domenico Starnone

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davis

My initial recommendation for any readers of this novel would be to turn to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Afterword first. The translator is herself a fiction author, and without attempting to forestall personal responses to Trust she illuminates its structure and its ‘roller coaster’ of volatile emotional rhythms with particular stress on the role of wordplay and the fluid nature of language. It’s a fascinating, helpful piece by a writer blessed with two complementary skills. 

Starnone has arranged the narrative in three parts: The First Story, told by  high-school teacher Pietro Vella, takes up almost two thirds of the book. The Second and Third Stories are much shorter though incisively revealing commentaries by his daughter Emma and an ex-lover once his student but always an obsessional fixture in Pietro’s life, Teresa Quadraro. Inevitably, their perspectives differ, triangulating Pietro’s egocentric self-assessment (with a fistful of humblebrags thrown in, naturally). The plot’s melodramatic fulcrum is a pact proposed to Pietro by Teresa after a raging lovers’ quarrel: that each will tell the other their darkest, most shameful secret. She believes it will bond them indissolubly (what could possibly go wrong?). The guilty secrets are not specified, but left to settle teasingly in the reader’s mind, like Chekhov’s loaded gun, in a haze of ambivalence surrounding the concept of bonding/bondage.

Starnone plays with this problematic as time moves on while fortunes and attitudes change. After splitting with Teresa, Pietro advances professionally, becoming a minor cultural celebrity on the strength of his published critique of the Italian educational system. Teresa finds academic success in the United States. Nadia, whom Pietro marries, has similar aspirations (her arcane specialism being ‘algebraic surfaces’) which are dampened and frustrated by a male professor. The couple have three children. Pietro publishes more, tours with his agenda for educational reform, imagines an affair with a publisher’s PR person, Tilde, that never happens though she appears willing. 

The overall picture is one of a comfortably bourgeois existence earned through worldly success (Nadia teaches school following her disappointment) with an undercurrent of turbulence, mixed motives, pretence and self-deceit. Pietro’s increasing prominence as an educational maven loosens family ties, while Teresa takes full advantage of the rewarding career pathways offered by American academia. That she never fully disappears from Pietro’s life, however, raises the possibility that a broken bond has a more powerful, albeit negative, grip than an honoured one.

In The Second Story, Emma, now a mature woman and ‘frontline journalist’ with four daughters  and two ex-husbands, relates her campaign, through intensive lobbying and string-pulling, to have a prestigious prize awarded to her now retired father on ‘a day dedicated to schools of all stripes and categories’, the prize to be presented by the national president. It’s a rather comical endeavour, as lobbying is rampant in Italian cultural politics and the long list of potential recipients grows as people promote their favourites. Emma’s frantic commitment to her father’s cause includes recruiting Franchino, an intellectual adversary and alienated friend of his, and Teresa Quadraro, his ‘most illustrious pupil’. To the latter’s name Pietro surpisingly reacts with ‘a viscous flicker of fear and rage’. Cross-currents of conflicted feeling leave Emma in tears which she cannot explain.

Quite suitably, Teresa’s testimony occupies The Third Story, confirming her status as proprietor of the last word.  She opens it by damning Emma – and Pietro – for ‘sentences that… force themselves to sound pretty to convey behaviours and states of mind.’ This might seem to attack the very raison d’être of both high journalism and literary fiction. Nonetheless, she avows her love for the man who shaped her mind decades before, adding to the complexity of a story that begins ‘Love, well, what to say?’ In fact a lot is said or suggested without pointing to a definite conclusion, and without revealing details of the deadly secrets exchanged by the principal characters.   

Many moons ago I was cornered at a party by the alcoholic host who hissed, ‘do you know what relationships are about?’. I kept mum, since he was clearly about to tell me regardless. His pronouncement? ‘Deception’. I wonder. Can secrecy and withholding – in effect, bad faith – be the cement of relationships, candid disclosure their wrecking ball? It’s a question that overflows the boundaries of this compact, ingeniously wrought novel, which ends with Teresa’s realisation that Pietro is going to duck the award ceremony. ‘What a pity,’ she confides. ‘I finally knew what I’d say, and in this sickly-hued hall, in the presence of my former teacher, I’d gladly have spoken. I was, and am, far more dangerous than he.’ Not for the first time, love is linked with jeopardy.

So the gun is never fired on the page, but its latency sharpens the unresolved tensions of Trust to continue disturbing the reader’s awareness. Stiliana Milkova, reviewing Starnone’s 2017 novel, Ties, for Asymptote, notes that ‘it’s a text about the making and breaking of bonds and about the baggage (physical and psychological) accumulated in the process…. Starnone captures and dissects a vast array of concerns in a slim volume, neatly structured and tightly plotted, yet at the same time open-ended, without definitive answers or solutions.’ Milkova’s approach foregrounds the continuity of themes and techniques in Starnone’s fiction, and this timely verdict could be applied with equal justice to Trust. Starnone recomposes familiar elements of the romance genre through clashing, alternative first-person narratives, and  the roller coaster ride for the reader is well worth it.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Domenico Starnone, Trust, translation by Jhumpa Lahiri (Europa, 2021). 978-1787703186171, 144pp., paperback.

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