August 2, 2021

fight of the old man and the child

“La Farce” (Scherzetto), by Domenico Starnone, translated from Italian by Dominique Vittoz, Fayard, 232 p., € 18, digital € 13.

Two years after the success of Liens (Fayard, 2019), Domenico Starnone returns brilliantly in this Farce tasty. Crowned with the Strega Prize for Via Gemito (Fayard, 2004), the Neapolitan novelist continues to explore, with a sharp pen, the entanglement of feelings within a family nucleus. But if his previous text focused on marital relations, The joke apparently probes those of a grandfather and his grandson.

Apparently, because their reports are in reality a pretext for dealing with something else. Daniele Mallarico, protagonist and narrator, is a renowned illustrator on the decline. Pressed by his daughter who has to be away from Naples with her husband – for a mathematics conference as much as to resolve marriage problems – he accepts, willy-nilly, to come and look after Mario, an uncontrollable 4-year-old kid, dictator in power already claiming authoritatively: “I know, I do. ” During these 72 hours, the old man and the child will engage in a confrontation with an unexpected outcome.

The sometimes cruel playground is immediately set up: the Parthenopean city that the old designer, now based in Milan, finds here is far from clichés. In the background, a variable and elusive Naples, heavy with clouds, but also a memorable deluge, and the family apartment, on the sixth floor with a vertiginous balcony. This setting conjures up for Daniele not soothing memories, but a series of ghosts turning into hallucinations, which come to haunt the house of her adolescence. Confronted with the leitmotif “It looks like we would play” repeated by his grandson, Daniele realizes that decreeing the end of the game is not so easy.

A thousand doubts

The face-to-face with the youth, embodied by Mario requiring all kinds of attention, is an opportunity for the artist emptied of his energy to question his work, his entire career and even his very vocation. : the absurd illusion of having believed himself to be an exceptional personality and of having wanted to get out of his environment, when he was a child, with the help of his few abilities to draw. The meeting with Mario rekindles in him a thousand doubts, makes him feel for this finicky and pedantic grandson “Admiration mixed with resentment”, destroys any possibility of a plenitude that this 75-year-old man hoped to eventually achieve. It is about the emptiness of ambitions, in a tribute in no way veiled to Henry James, whose protagonist must illustrate the short story. « The Jolly Corner » (“The pleasant corner”, 1906), turning itself around ghosts, alter ego of the ego and doing “The abyss (…) the only way to save us from ourselves ”.

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