The House on Via Gemito
(Europa Editions, 2023)
As I settle into this review, Naples is going crazy. Italy’s top tier for soccer has reached its latest deciding games, and the Azzurri look to win the championship. In response, Neapolitan life recalls that hoary old writer’s chestnut, “teeming streets.” In the Centro Storico, team regalia has replaced even the dangling laundry. The madness has a distinctly local flavor as well, the cheers often in dialect. Altogether, the uproar makes about as fitting a complement to this text as can be imagined.
In his homeland, Domenico Starnone⎯born and raised in Naples⎯may have enjoyed his greatest success with The House on Via Gemito. He’s formidably productive, also a journalist and screenwriter, but this 2001 novel took home the Strega, Italy’s highest honor. Now it’s at last out in English, and if you ask me, the book deserves more of the same. It presents a vivid rainbow of sediments: a boy’s initiations, with every antenna trembling, tuning in secrets of both family and neighborhood; and an evisceration of the creative life, exposing both how the world crushes its artists and how artists sabotage their own efforts; and all this erupts like Naples in full cry. It’s all extremes. The novel opens with the narrator’s father and mother at each other’s throats, then closes with some ticklish love-play between the same couple. Such wild swings might seem too much, over a narrative of nearly five hundred pages, but this author knows the local cornucopia so well, he never fails to fish out just the right detail to insure that his latest somersault sticks the landing.
The Tyrrhenian seaport has a far greater role to play here than in any of the previous Starnone in English. There have been four so far, fictions which appeared in Italy years after the Strega winner, and only one spends much time in Naples. Trick (2018) brings an old man back to town, and like the father who dominates Via Gemito, the man’s a visual artist, but their narratives come across very differently. Trick concludes with a creepy children’s story, including blurry illustrations, that calls into question the novel’s previous reality. Similar psychological unease permeates Ties (2017) and Trust (2019), and all three of these books were translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, who also contributed translator’s notes for each. With Lahiri as his champion, Starnone won an English readership, yet for this earlier novel⎯much like a first novel, a return to childhood⎯he’s working with someone else: Oonagh Stransky.
Stransky’s long experience includes a book from the man behind Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano, no less than Napoli D.O.C. The local color of Starnone’s novel doesn’t faze her, in other words, especially not the many outbursts of the city patois. She understands how idiosyncrasies of dialect can express a central quandary of the fiction:
[This wasn’t] an actual argument between my parents but more of an appiccio, a word in dialect that … can mean both we had an argument and we forcefully made out, as if hatred is not all that different from love: in both cases you want to get close…
In Via Gemito, closeness is always explosive, whether inside or outside the home. The same contrapuntal tension rules the whole experience of First Communion, for the narrator Mimi⎯ short for Domenico. By that age, the eldest son has seen such ugliness, he’s decided “God definitely does not exist,” and yet as the ritual approaches, “it didn’t even occur to me to rebel”; at the church, he’s both moved by “my mother deep in prayer… her eyes moist,” and repulsed by the icons:
One wall is heavily decorated with silver ex-voto. The images look like butchered pieces of human bodies: legs, arms, half a head, mouths… Suffering and torture.
This balance of ferocious intensity and cool observation gives us the plot, insofar as there is one. Mimi narrates as an adult, struggling to make sense of his upbringing⎯ to cool off its intensity⎯ and in particular his father Federico, the one who most kept things on edge. An office drudge with soaring artistic ambitions, the man’s greatest gift may’ve been for self-mythology: “The more he told [a] story,” his son recalls, “the more his role as a savior grew.” Now and again, nonetheless, Federico found real success; his paintings hang in downtown offices, and he “can also be great fun.”
These conflicting memories emerge from grief. Federico died only recently, and yet until late in the text, that tragedy remains off-stage, little more than a by-the-way. Even when Mimi arrives at the deathbed, there’s no shaking his disorientation, teetering “on the cusp of either dreams or nightmares.” So too, all we know of the narrator is that he’s a writer, even while he's developing so rich and disturbing a portrait of the artist as an old man.
A figure larger than life, Federico can only be investigated in slow, spiraling increments. The communion episode, coming later in the text, sheds light on the father’s “furious and amusing fusion of God, death, and sex.” The novel’s first pages, on the other hand, raise the more pressing question of domestic abuse. And how much did the father’s violence owe to his own rough childhood? To the galling inequities of life in Naples? To the upheavals of the war?
Answers never prove simple, amid the Proustian detail and Ginsbergian howls, but the questions often come back to that war. Among the first firm dates is 1943, the year of both the narrator’s birth and the guerilla uprising known as the Four Days of Naples. The hostilities shattered father and family in ways that haven’t yet been repaired, just as Fascist terror still haunts Italian society. Thus, Via Gemito offers a decades-long, countrywide vision, despite the foreground intimacy. As the narrator looks over the blocks on which he was raised, he puts an entire jerry-rigged culture under scrutiny. The title street is one I’ve spent time on, as it happens, and like Mimi I’ve been struck by its changes, not just the new construction but the shifting demographics, as refugees take over the grunt work and natives seek better opportunities elsewhere.
Starnone himself has gone elsewhere. These days he lives in Rome with his translator wife Anita Raja⎯or should I say, Elena Ferrante? The pseudonymous author of the Neapolitan Quartet, according to a credible 2016 investigation, is in fact this Raja. Neither she nor Starnone have confirmed the report, nor any other rumor, but by now it's all but impossible to discuss one without mentioning the other. Yet The House on Via Gemito underscores the connection that matters, between these two master realists. The Quartet’s Lila and Lenù, like this novel’s Mimi, are war babies wrenched around by the vast transformations that followed, and these have left the protagonists at once repulsed by the old ways and yearning for their comforts. Even back home, they feel unmoored, and so they enact the agonizing paradox at the heart of our disruptive century.