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Complete Review: "Violence, and the threat of violence, bubbles under the surface of much of this."

Date: Mar 5 2009

First Execution begins as a straightforward thriller. Nina, a former student of retired literature teacher Domenico Stasi, was arrested, the politically active woman accused of armed conspiracy. When she is released she wants to meet with her former teacher, and she asks him for a favour -- "to do what being arrested kept me from doing."
       Stasi feels a certain sense of responsibility -- "To educate is a powerful, positive action, it establishes a bond that cannot be dissolved" -- and he agrees: he goes to the apartment of a friend of hers, where there is a message hidden in a book he is meant to retrieve.
       Three chapters and barely more than a dozen pages in the first-person narrative shifts abruptly: rather than Stasi recounting the story the author pops up, full of doubt about what he has written and how to proceed. He does reveal that: "I was constructing the story the way I usually do, reinventing my experience", and describes how he came to this story. And over the rest of the novel he repeatedly interjects himself and describes the writing-process and the reasons behind his choices. Not only that, he also revises the text, changing some of the details and some of what occurs as he proceeds.
       Stasi is drawn deeper into the conspiracy, receiving a package containing a gun, for example. And the author tosses another former student into the mix, Sellitto, who is on the police force investigating the new Red Brigades.
       Both former students were influenced by Stasi's teachings -- and, for example, his passion about injustice. Sellitto recalls: "You were capable of showing us injustice in just about anything, even things you'd never normally think about." And Sellitto and Nina now both fight against injustice, albeit in very different ways.
       Violence, and the threat of violence, bubbles under the surface of much of this. When Sellitto mentions Stasi railing against injustice he also notes how mad the teacher would get, creating a tension in the classroom. But Stasi has also retreated from at least part of his once firmly held position: When I was young, I thought that violence was a curtain to be drawn with a necessary gesture, unemotionally, as a way of letting in a little light. Now it terrifies me.        But the author pushes him towards an act of violence. And the author also mentions an incident of losing control himself: angry at how one bus passenger treated another he found himself lashing out, suddenly: "a furious, disembodied demon". It is also an action that will have consequences; it also colours how the book proceeds.
       The puppet-master pushes Stasi towards action: To finally excavate Stasi from decades of words. Make him experience the burden, the responsibility, the delirium of doing.        It's a few fairly clever twists that lead author and Stasi there, but it's also a lot for the book to sustain. Starnone pulls it off well enough, but it's not quite as neat a trick as it might have been. Stil, it make for an interesting meditation on violence, political action, and, above all else, words -- especially about morality and ethics (i.e.how easy it is to denounce injustice, but how hard it is to act against it).
       The metafictional play is handled quite well -- though presumably works better in an environment where Starnone's works are more familiar (the author in the book clearly is Starnone and he mentions a number of his projects; there are also cameos by writers Alessandro Baricco and Sandro Veronesi). An interesting if not entirely satisfying read.