I have to confess that the only reason I read this book – that it even appeared on my radar in the first place – was because it was associated with Jhumpa Lahiri. Last year, I had written about her memoir, In Other Words, which she wrote in Italian and which was then translated into English by another translator – despite the fact that she is, or at least was until then, an English author. It is incredible to me that someone who has achieved so much success in one language – she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Interpreter of Maladies in 2000 – would deliberately choose to discontinue all association with that language and attempt to adopt another language, which in her case was Italian, to the extent of actually moving to Italy with her family and talking and writing only in Italian. Well, she must have accomplished some of what she set out to do since she is back on the English scene, albeit not as an author but as a translator. I don’t know anything about the Italian literary scene, but the author of Ties, Domenico Starnone, is apparently a highly regarded writer in Italy, and Jhumpa Lahiri, after reading the book in its native Italian, jumped at the opportunity to translate the book to English and make it available to the English-speaking world. She has also written an Introduction to the English translation which was very illuminating, providing not only some interesting insights about the book but also about her journey from English to Italian and back.
Getting back to the book, Ties is more of a novella rather than a novel, which means that it is a relatively quick – and easy – read. (This is not to say that all short books are an easy read, but Ties was not in the least bit dense.) It is a story told in three parts, and is, at its heart, the story of a marriage beset by trials and tribulations. The protagonists of the story are a couple, Vanda and Aldo, who have two children, a boy, Sandro, and a girl, Anna. The novel opens when Vanda and Aldo have been married for twelve years, and Aldo walks out on his family to be with a younger woman who he has fallen in love with. Infidelity in a marriage is hardly an uncommon occurrence, but what makes Ties different is that that first part of the story is told entirely in the form of a series of letters written by Vanda to Aldo, entreating him to come to his senses and return home. She does not work and is having a hard time paying the bills; also, the kids miss their father terribly and feel abandoned. These pleas, admonishments, and guilt trips do not really work, as Aldo does not return and Vanda is forced to go out and find a job and singlehandedly run the home and bring up the children. Needless to say, she ends up becoming very hard-hearted and embittered.
The second part of the book fast-forwards several decades and is narrated by Aldo. Both he and Vanda are now in their seventies, and surprisingly, they are together as a married couple. At some point, therefore, Aldo did come back after all. This part of the book has a lot of reminiscing by Aldo on why he left and the reason that he came back. But the main reason for focusing on this particular time of their lives is because of a major incident – Aldo and Vanda have just returned from a vacation to find their house completely vandalized, turned upside down, and Vanda’s beloved cat missing. It is extremely upsetting, and as they go about starting to clean up, we come to know that Aldo has some compromising photographs which have gone missing, leaving him to think it was likely blackmail. At any minute, he is expecting a call threatening to show the photographs to his wife if he doesn’t pay up.
The “mystery” – if we can call it as such – is revealed in the third part of the book, and of course, I cannot write about it without giving it away, except to say that it was totally unexpected.
So, did I like the book? I definitely found it interesting as it captured personalities and a culture that I don’t know anything about. Also, it was a short and quick read, which I really appreciated. And the ending did come as a complete surprise, but not in any kind of unbelievable way. In fact, it brought the story back to the family unit, showing that the “ties” in any relationship, once they are weakened, do not really heal, despite our best efforts. This was particularly true of the marriage between Vanda and Aldo, which had started to develop fissures and cracks, and while it may seem that it all worked out in the end – Aldo did return to his family eventually – the damage was done. The rot had started to set in, and despite being together, neither Vanda nor Aldo was really happy. The situation also took a toll on the children, with both Sandro and Anna damaged in some way as a result of the problems in their parents’ marriage.
As Lahiri explains in the Introduction, the title of the book “Ties” is her interpretation of the Italian title “Lacci” which literally translates into laces. There is some reference in the book to the actual tying of shoelaces, and it seemed liked an apt metaphor for Lahiri to capture the essence of the story.
Does this signal the end of Jhumpa Lahiri’s hiatus from English? I certainly hope so, as she is a very talented writer, but we will just have to wait and see.
Author: Domenico Starnone, Jhumpa Lahiri (Translator)
Publisher: Europa Editions
Publication Date: March 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.