This morning I don’t know if I’m scared for the child or scared of the child.
Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature
On the surface, Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a relatively simple story about a successful yet grumpy illustrator, Daniele Mallarico, who reluctantly agrees to look after his precocious four-year-old grandson Mario for a few days, while his parents, who are going through some rather stupid relationship drama, are attending an academic conference. What ensues is a kind of “battle of wills” between the boy and the old man, as the grandfather tries to work on his latest project – a commission from his publisher to illustrate the short story The Jolly Corner by Henry James – while the grandson is testing his patience by incessantly demanding attention. However, as you read on, the book offers more than just a comedic “slice of life” story as it focuses on the theme of coming to terms with the process of ageing. Daniele struggles to accept the fact that he’s not the wild young man who used to roam the streets of Naples anymore since he feels that he hasn’t changed that much mentally, and it could even be said that he is haunted by memories of the past versions of himself.
The book plays out kind of like a “bottle episode” on television, where the whole story is set within the confines of a limited space (in this case – the few rooms of the apartment) and mostly consists of interactions between the two main characters and Daniele’s inner thoughts. Daniele spends most of the time ruminating on the struggles of his artistic life and the nature of success which, in the long-term, may sometimes lull people into a sense of false security, and lead to artistic stagnation. He feels that his imagination is worn-out and worries that the new generation may not understand or appreciate his work anymore. Moreover, his sense of decline is intensified by his grandson’s youth and vitality.
The artistic life had had its quiet mean, without visible peaks and therefore without sudden valleys. Success, when it had come, had seemed natural to me. I’d never done anything to obtain it or hang onto it: My work was simply deserving. Maybe this was the reason I still thought success was a long-lasting substance that would never deteriorate.
Daniele has spent most of his life in Milan, and the return to his childhood home in Naples forces him to confront his lifelong self-doubt. His work is the essence of his life and a fundamental part of his identity, but, at the same time, he seems to suffer from a bad case of impostor syndrome.
[…] I’d gotten old with the conviction that, sooner or later, some incredible event would banish my doubts forever, thereby defining me with extreme precision. The event I’d always awaited was that some work of mine, undeniably huge, bursting into the world, would prove that I wasn’t presumptuous.
Trick is a deceptively simple and effective story that tackles the themes of ageing, generational conflict, creativity, success, and identity. I’m now curious to read the Henry James story that is referenced in this book to find out what are some of the links between these two stories.