Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone was first published in 2001. The book won the Strega Prize in the same year. Starnone is a writer but also a teacher and a screenwriter. In Via Gemito he puts on paper the story of a family that lives in Naples, more precisely in the street, which gives the title to the book.
The novel, however, is not the narration of a group formed by members that love and care for each other. Starnone shows the reader a family that has to be one. It reflects the 1940s’ culture: a product of what needed to be done at the time to be considered in keeping with society.
Mimì, the narrator’s voice, is Federì’s son. Federì is a wannabe painter, unable to make ends meet with his art and forced to be a conductor. He has a wife, Rusine’, a woman that he fears he doesn’t live up to. She doesn’t want to be beautiful, but she is. She is special without trying. Federì feels trapped and not appreciated, limited in his genius. He hates most of his family and takes it out on Rusine’, beating her in front of his children.
“Every reminiscence is already the first stage of a lie”
With the flowing of the pages, Mimì tries to reorganize his memories, but the process of remembering a whole life is tough, especially the recognition of what is true or what is flawed from the narrative of years and years of lies of his father Federì. It looks like every memory is somehow twisted by what Federì told him every day of his existence. “How evil is the memory, every reminiscence is already the first stage of a lie”, Starnone writes. The book is the path of Mimì, Federì’s son, trying to understand himself through his past and through the figure of his father, who hated and admired at the same time.
Naples is in the background, like a vital character that moves the narrative as a puppet master. The setting becomes as important as the people who live in it. Starnone also plays with the title: gemito means “moan”, and the title represents more than the family’s address. It is Naples’ moan too, along with the frustration of men and women the lives in it, condemned to be just a tiny dot between the huge population settled in the city.
Naples represents for Starnone what the Langa is for Beppe Fenoglio. A vivid background that weaves and bends each character’s emotion. Its narrow streets, full of people, of buzzing and screams, represent their inner turmoil, just like Piedmont’s barren and quiet hills are a metaphor for the war’s desolation in Fenoglio’s books.
Looking back in anger at family shadows
Via Gemito is not the only novel of Starnone that tries to deepen the remote shades of what there is behind a family. In his short novel Ties, the writer analyses one type of bond that can keep together a group of people: revenge. This particular feeling is also common to another Neapolitan writer: Elena Ferrante. Her first novel L’Amore Molesto tells a story about the relationship between a daughter and her mother, digging in the dark past. In My Brilliant Friend‘s pages, she describes the difficulties of a couple of young girls forced to elbow their way between the tiny alleys of the city, but also between the hardness of being women in the Naples of the ’50s. Both Ferrante and Starnone focus on the evil that can come from an expected source of love, the family, showing what can be hidden behind the curtains.
Different address, same story
Via Gemito manages to talk about toxic balances typical of families. But most of all, it tries to eviscerate the need of being the exception in a world of nullity.
The world one lives in is not Naples. Nevertheless, the spiral in which the city wraps the characters could be any city of any time. The reader is Federì, but also Mimì sometimes becomes Rusine’.
The only thing that changes is the address.