Monday, April 1, 2013

First Execution by Domenico Starnone

When I heard that Nina had 
been arrested, I called her 
Opening to

First Execution

by Domenico Starnone
Translated from the Italian by
Antony Shugaar
If you are a longtime reader of crime fiction or thrillers of any kind, you are probably used to having the rug pulled out from under you, narratively speaking.  For some of us, finding out that what we thought was true is completely wrong is just want we want in a mystery thriller.

While Domenico Starnone's novel First Execution certainly does this, it does it in a way that will proabably anger as many readers as it pleases.

The story opens when Domenico Stasi, a retired professor learns that a former student, Nina, is being held as a suspected terrorist.  He wonders if the radical ideals he taught in his classes inspired her in a way he did not intend.  After her release, she visits Stasi and asks him to perform a simple task for her.  Go into the apartment of an aquaintance, look up a page in a particular book, copy down the underlined sentence on that page and mail it to an address she provides him.  Stasi refuses at first, but after some convincing agrees to perform this one task for Nina, unsure if she is fighting for the right cause or not.

Things become complicated, of course.  The events of the novel move along at a quick pace putting Stasi in danger very quickly.  At least he thinks he is in dnager.  I also thought he was in danger and was really getting into the story when the author pulled the rug out from under me, just about 30 pages into the book.

Completely out of the blue, the narrator breaks character, informs us that he is the author and that he's having trouble deciding what should happen next.  He then describes how he personally differs from Stasi, though he is also a retired professor a little too involved with a younger woman.  The rest of the novel moves between the life of the retired professor who is struggling to write the novel and the novel the professor is writing.

I was reminded of my favorite book from last year, HHhH by Laurent Binet, which takes a similar tactic featuring a narrator/author who comments on the book as it progresses leaving the reader unsure just how much of the story is to be believed along with if the author is going to go through with writing the end of the book or not.  Until now I had thought HHhH was so original, but First Execution predates it by a couple of years.

I've no idea if Laurent Binet read First Execution, but both authors comes from a literary world that spends much more time experiementing with the form of the novel than English language authors do, at least the English language authors I've been reading lately.  Binet, who is French, and Starnone, who is Italian, both are as interested in what the novel can do as they are in writing a decent thriller.  I found that HHhH delivered the goods, thriller wise, much more than First Execution did, but if you liked one, you'll probably enjoy the other.  And if you hated one, don't even bother.  


Lisa May said...

I've never read a novel where that happens, and I think if I'd gotten invested in the first story I might find it annoying! unless the second story was absolutely compelling. Did both story lines work?

Jim Randolph said...

I don't know. Reminds me of Zusak's I Am the Messenger I read recently. Except he couldn't decide how to END the thing and went for a trick like that. I found it a bit of a letdown after such a rich novel. Maybe it's better when it happens up front.

James Chester said...

While I thought both story lines worked, they didn't work well enough for me to give the book an unqualified thumbs up. I agree with Jim, that the meta-fictional tricks should be up-front, otherwise it comes off as a bit of a cheat.