The late and great American author Henry James was fascinated with the ghost story. Unlike most writers of horror fiction, however, James was not concerned with a ghost’s capacity to scare. Rather, he focused on its ability to function as dark reflections of humanity, how they supernaturally guide us through the darker side of the human psyche. Ghosts are “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy,” writes James in the preface of his final ghost story, “The Jolly Corner.”
Daniele Mallarico, the central character of contemporary Italian author Domenico Starnone’s “Trick,” is very much a ghost himself. An aging illustrator past his prime, Daniele has been commissioned to create images to embellish a deluxe edition of “The Jolly Corner.” While this task certainly occupies his time and his fading livelihood, Daniele primarily functions as a grandfather as the book unfolds, as he labors to look after his four-year-old grandson, Mario. The contrast between Daniele’s overbearing protectiveness (manifested sometimes in meanness) and Mario’s advanced innocence for a boy his age defines the relationship between the two but creates problems. Conversations between those two push the narrative forward, as Starnone explores the connection between artistry and age.
Translated masterfully into English by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, “Trick” — like “The Jolly Corner” — is “about the horror of returning to one’s place of origin,” states Lahiri in her introduction. Daniele has to return to his ancestral home in Naples, which has now become the modern living space for his daughter and her family. And while his daughter and her husband are off at a work conference having relationship issues of their own, Daniele has to care for the boundless ball of energy that is Mario. While Mario oscillates at 100 kilometers per hour between playing with his action figures, watching TV and just generally jumping and moving around, Daniele is weakened in his old age and constrained in his childhood home. This contrast of bodies — “One small and mighty, the other large, laid low” — is central to the relationship dynamics of “Trick.”
Much like Spencer Brydon, the protagonist of “The Jolly Corner,” Daniele prowls the house he once grew up and confronts the ghost of the man he might have been. Only for Daniele, this ghost is alive and has manifested itself in Mario. For a four-year-old, Mario is quite capable but limited by his size; for example, he knows exactly how to make breakfast for his family and how his father takes his coffee, but he can’t reach the milk in the fridge. In this way, Mario and Daniele are a perfect pairing, yet they never play off of each other’s strengths. Many a time their relationship is strained because Daniele lacks the vigor to do what Mario asks of him. The climax of the narrative, a “trick” Mario plays on his grandfather, is humorous on paper, but is exacerbated because completing the “trick” requires Mario to go beyond his physical capabilities and listen, for once, to Daniele.
The crucial moment that defines the relationship between grandfather and grandson happens when Daniele finally allows Mario to work alongside him, both drawing. While Daniele works on the James story, Mario, miming his elders in a way only a child can do, decides to draw his grandpa. When Daniele gazes at Mario’s work to see what he drew, he is in awe of the “natural harmony of composition, a fanciful sense of color.” Yet Mario doesn’t realize the simple perfection in his drawing, which causes Daniele to be overcome with horror: “I really was my ghost.”
After Mario is finally reunited with his parents and the story ends, an appendix awaits the reader, presented as Daniele’s diary before and during his time with Mario, accompanied by some of his illustrations. To Lahiri, it is “an organ literally cut out of the story, seemingly extraneous but in fact fundamental to our understanding.” Providing a crucial subtext to the action of the book, this appendix fuses Starnone’s writing with James’s fiction, glued together by Lahiri’s translation. But while Starnone willfully combines art of the past, he does so with purpose. In Mario’s purity of age, he only does what he knows and copies the work of his grandfather, of the past. In copying, however, he creates something entirely new, something comparable to his grandfather’s work but stands entirely on its own. While most artists are well past their childhood, with “Trick,” Starnone reminds them to never forget their initial inspirations and how their art serves as a vivid link between past and present.