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Three Monkeys: "The plot within the plot is enough to get us page-turning, but the interruptions when they come are not mere sleights of hand. They are the real story."

Date: Apr 5 2009

It seems like a good year and a half since I’ve read a novel that didn’t involve a writer writing a novel, so I started Domenico Starnone’s First Execution wearily, almost out of duty - despite the fact that the original Italian version of the book comes highly recommended.

It has though, thus far (I’m half way through) been a literary pick-me-up, reminding the reader that there are concrete reasons sometimes for authors to play around with post-modern trickery,

The story opens with an ageing Italian professor, Domenico Stasi, meeting with one of his favourite former students - a young woman who has just been released from prison after involvement with a left-wing terrorist movement. Stasi, who has his whole life lectured on morality, power, and class struggle is faced with a dilemma when his student, Nina, asks him to move from theory into action, by performing a simple message delivery for the movement. 

Things are further complicated when, having agreed, he’s brought in for police questioning - at the hands of another former student, one who has taken, it seems, the opposite political path.

And in that nutshell you have an interesting story that could tell you a huge amount about Italy’s anni di piombo, or years of lead as the violent period between the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1980s has become known. It is, in many ways, still a fresh subject for Italian writers, artists, and film-makers given that so many of the incidents remain shrouded in mystery (like the kidnapping and assasination of former prime-minister Aldo Moro, for example).

But instead Starnone, after setting up an effective narrative full of suspense, steps into the ring interrupting things to talk about his narrative choices. For example, after dropping a bombshell in the opening chapters, suggesting that our Professor’s wife may have had an affair, Starnone breaks in:

I wanted to just leave that phrase lying there, artlessly, dangling without any immediate development. But it should burn into the eye of the careful reader.

(I rummage through my notes: “Nothing more than a glancing reference. Carla, Luciano. The opacity behind which Stasi sought safety.” When I write a story - during the actual writing - I jot down ideas or characters that pop into my mind, even though the time hasn’t come to use them: hypotheses about the nature of my characters, significant actions that this one or that one will perform either just a few lines down, or else further along, or perhaps at the end of the book, concepts that will serve to generate thoughts or dialogues. This material generally lies there unused, often I don’t even look at it again, it’s a memo that I almost never make use of. Recently, though, I decided to go through a number of stories that I sketched out over the years, including this story of Professor Stasi, for instance, and I pulled out the notebook with those notes. At first I planned to complete the stories that I still found interesting and that I had left unfinished or incomplete. But then, suddenly, I changed my mind. It struck me that I could do something else: make use of my notes, my first drafts, and passages that I had polished to provide a faithful, reliable account of the drafting of each of the stories. A first draft is the closest thing there is to life itself as it rains chaotically down upon our heads. Why not give it a try? And so, here I am now, trying to stitch together what I had imagined for Carla and Luciano. For Luciano, though, I have to remember to change his name. Make a note, in case I actually publisht this. I can’t leave him with the name of a colleague that I actually knew decades ago, even though a real name is particularly comfortable for a writer, while it’s just depressing to give false names to a friend, and acquaintance, a neighbour: Lucio or Luc or Z. or even Comrade ***. The impression of authenticity, of truth, begins to fade. Luciano was like this or like that, he used to do this or that; now who is this Lucio, who is Luc, who is Z., who is Comrade ***. Useless filters in a word that is so permanently fake that it no longer requires filters.)

Look at the length of that parentheses - he even breaks the flow of his own interruptions. This should, you might think, make for a fragmented and unsatisfactory read, but in fact the opposite is the case. The plot within the plot is enough to get us page-turning, but the interruptions when they come are not mere sleights of hand. They are the real story, and tell us as much or more about Italy’s recent history than the dozens of straight narratives tthat have been published/filmed.

By chance, I came upon an interview between American novelist John Wray (whose latest novel Lowboy will be reviewed shortly in TMO) and Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke, which puts its finger on why this distancing approach is both necessary and worthwhile:

Haneke has his own theory for the divergent routes taken by Hollywood and Europe, one in which, perhaps not surprisingly, the darker side of German and Austrian history plays a central role. “At the beginning of the 20th century,” he told me, “when film began in Europe, storytelling of the kind still popular in Hollywood was every bit as popular here. Then the Nazis came, and the intellectuals — a great number of whom were Jewish — were either murdered or managed to escape to America and elsewhere. There were no intellectuals anymore — most of them were dead. Those who escaped to America were able to continue the storytelling approach to film — really a 19th-century tradition — with a clear conscience, since it hadn’t been tainted by fascism. But in the German-speaking world, and in most of the rest of Europe, that type of straightforward storytelling, which the Nazis had made such good use of, came to be viewed with distrust. The danger hidden in storytelling became clear — how easy it was to manipulate the crowd. As a result, film, and especially literature, began to examine itself. Storytelling, with all the tricks and ruses it requires, became gradually suspect. This was not the case in Hollywood.” At this point, Haneke asked politely whether I was following him, and I told him that I was. “I’m glad,” he said, apparently with genuine relief. “For Americans, this can sometimes be hard to accept.”