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Novel set in NAPLES

9th August 2023

The House in Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone, novel set in NAPLES.

TR: Oonagh Stransky

Novel set in NAPLES

The House in Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone is set in Naples and narrated by Domenico, nicknamed Mimi. (Although the author’s and main character’s names are the same, it isn’t stated that the book is intended to be autobiographical.) The adult Mimi reflects on his unhappy childhood with his beautiful but silent mother, Rusinè, and jealous, self-centred and violent father, Federì. The House in Via Gemito covers several decades starting with Mimi’s earliest childhood recollections in World War II. Mimi as an adult desperately tries to make sense of his father’s life and attitudes. He seems to have little grasp of reality, feeling that his memories and attitudes have been altered over time by his fear of his overbearing father. He tries to reconstruct what really happened, noting that his father’s account is in doubt, as he is a liar and a fantasist.

Federì, his father, is a former boxer. He dominates everyone around him using fear – saying that he was trained by the best from childhood, because his relationship with his own father was dysfunctional. He’s a frustrated artist with narcissistic tendencies, who feels that he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Despite becoming the youngest station master in Italy, he is lazy and boastful. Mimi tries to do justice to this man – asking himself whether he is right to recall his father brutally beating his mother, Rusinè. In many ways it is a pathetic story: Mimi experienced no affection from this man but neither did Federì from his own father. Both men have obviously experienced deep psychological damage, and this account is Mimi’s attempt to heal and possibly forgive.

 

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The book is not arranged chronologically, and this makes it hard to follow, particularly at first. The structure is meant to represent Mimi’s confusion, but it makes for a challenging read. It’s as though the plot is a spiral, gradually revealing more of the family history as it revisits certain episodes and  themes, such as Mimi’s powerlessness and confusion. The complexity of the characters and the emerging story make for a more interesting read as the book progresses.

The descriptions of location are pretty grim at the beginning of the book, as befits the deprivation of wartime Italy. Mimi and his family lived in squalid conditions with his extended family before moving to Via Gemito and the removal scarcely improved matters. Later passages in the book are more lyrical, detailing sights, sounds, smells and even sensations, such as the heat of metal in the Neapolitan sun. All this is still tempered by the atmosphere of oppression and unhappiness that Mimi experienced.

I enjoyed the way the translator, Oonagh Stransky, has contextualised the many colourful phrases in Italian and Neapolitan dialect in the book, so that I could appreciate the text without needing to resort to a dictionary.

This book is not a light read for the plane or the beach, but I believe that perseverance will be rewarded.

 

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Sue for the TripFiction Team

Catch our reviewer Sue on Twitter @suekelsoryan

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