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Mostly Fiction: "By turns exciting, absurd, and ironic."

Date: Apr 16 2009

Fans of metafiction will get a real workout with this novel by Domenico Starnone, who in 2001 was honored with the Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize. First Execution, a book which appears to be about terrorism and the shedding of blood by all extremist groups--from fascists to communists to, more recently, religious extremists—is, like all metafiction, a novel in which reality and fantasy overlap. A narrator/author, "Domenico Starnone," is writing a story, the first three chapters of which he plans to submit as part of a collection of stories to be sold to raise money for tsunami relief. As he writes, he tells about events from his own life while adapting these events to the needs of his fiction, telling his story and then backing up and rewriting his memories and his plot, while also experimenting with characters. The reality of his life is the starting point for the fantasy he is creating, but by the time the book ends, the reader’s perception of reality has been so distorted by Starnone’s creative process that the “real-life” conclusion feels more like fantasy than reality. The effect is akin to witnessing to an act of violence—one is not sure whether to believe what the eyes are seeing.

Stasi, a sixty-seven-year-old former high school teacher, has always been on the cutting edge of progressive, radical ideas, moving in the course of his life and teaching career from promoting Christian charity to communism, to the anti-Vietnam war movement, to, ultimately, world revolution. Respected as a teacher, he has always been seen by his students as “capable of showing the injustice in just about everything,” and they (and he himself) believe that his “radical beliefs had always been…a form of mental honesty.” He has told them that “You should die on your feet, rather than live on your knees.” Despite this brave statement, however, he is unsure of who he really is, declaring that “I had grown old doing not what I wanted to do, but rather what corresponded to the way I saw myself.”

When Antonia Villa, known as Nina, one of his former students, is released from jail after an investigation for armed conspiracy, her father contacts Stasi to set up a meeting, at which Nina asks Stasi to go to an apartment, copy a passage from a book there, and then put it into an envelope which someone will later retrieve. He is not sure why he agrees to do this, since he believes Nina is a member of the revolutionary Red Brigades, but he wanted “to live up to her expectations,” the memories of him that she has carried for the ten years since she finished school. There are times, he believes, “when a person of any sensibility must sell his cloak and purchase a sword.” Later he agrees to return to the apartment where he has found the book, and this time he finds a package addressed to him containing a pistol and the photograph of a man whom he is presumably expected to execute.

While he is doing the bidding of Nina and her associates, he is also contacted by Augusto Sellitto, another former student, who has taken a different route. Sellitto is a police officer who warns him against Nina, telling him that “those streets you cross with your eyes closed could be dangerous.”

Throughout the novel, "Starnone" the author/teacher and Stasi the character in the story explore their philosophical worlds. The author continuously changes the story and its details, adding information from his past life, erasing ideas that he believes do not work in his fictional story, explaining how his political ideals have changed, and trying to live his own real life at the same time that he is creating a new, and much revised, fictional life. Stasi the character in the story explores dreams and examines symbols—eels with their heads chopped off which disappear inside a house, a chicken which Stasi must kill to save face. Ultimately, Starnone, always wanting to defend the oppressed, becomes infuriated with the insulting behavior of a man on a bus toward a woman, attacking and then throwing him off the bus. The man’s family later blames him for the man’s declining health—and become part of the fictional story.

As the story becomes increasingly complex—and more philosophically absurdist--Stasi the man decides that “everyone, eventually, will be forced to decide not whether to shed blood, but which blood to shed: the blood of the oppressed or the blood of the oppressors.” And even though he begins to wonder if Nina and her friends are playing him for a fool as they continue to send him on errands and set him up to execute someone, he decides that he no longer has “feelings of indignation.” Eventually, "Starnone" the man and Stasi the fictional character merge in a grand climax at the conclusion, bringing Starnone’s reality and fantasy together to create a new “reality.” He no longer thinks of the future, believing that “What’s wonderful…is to understand that this life of ours is what exists, here, now, and nothing more,” a statement which proves to be a consummate irony.

Readers who enjoy metafiction will enjoy the novel’s twists and turns into and out of reality and the author’s exploration of political thought and action in the twentieth century. The story itself is by turns exciting, absurd, and ironic. Readers who prefer more straightforward novels, however, may find themselves frustrated with the artificiality of the construction and the fact that most of the “action” seems to take place in the fictional story. The book’s dramatic conclusion, in which Starnone leaves the reader to fill in the blanks regarding what will happen next, continues his dark, if not cynical, tone, hammering home the idea that “Maybe the human race never had any hope at all, right from the beginning.” (Translated by Antony Shugaar.)

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