Front cover of The House on Via Gemito

An extract from The House on Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone, translated by Oonagh Stransky

The House on Via Gemito, originally written in Italian, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

The modest apartment in Via Gemito smells of paint and white spirit. The living room furniture is pushed up against the wall to create a make-shift studio, and drying canvases must be moved off the beds each night. Federí, the father, a railway clerk, is convinced of possessing great artistic talent. If he didn’t have a family to feed, he’d be a world-famous painter. Ambitious and frustrated, genuinely talented but full of arrogance and resentment, his life is marked by bitter disappointment. His long-suffering wife and their four sons bear the brunt. It’s his first-born who, years later, will sift the lies from the truth to tell the story of a man he spent his whole life trying not to resemble.

Written by Domenico Starnone and Oonagh Stransky

Publication date and time: Published

When my father told me he hit my mother only once in twenty-three years of marriage, I didn’t even bother replying. A long time had passed since I had challenged any of his stories, with their fabricated events, dates, and details. When I was a boy, I always saw him as a liar and his lies embarrassed me, as if they were my own. Now, as an adult, it didn’t even seem to me like he was lying. He truly believed his words could recreate facts according to his desires or regrets. 

A few days later, though, his punctilious assertion resurfaced in my thoughts. Initially I felt unease, then growing anger, and finally the desire to pick up the phone and yell into it, “Really? Only once? And all those times I remember seeing you hit her, right up until she started dying, what were they? Love taps?” 

Of course I didn’t call. Although I had been playing the role of devoted son for decades, I had also managed to hand him a fair number of disappointments. And besides, it was pointless to attack him directly. His jaw would’ve dropped the way it always did whenever something unexpected happened and, in that mild tone of voice he always used when he disagreed with us children, he’d start to list with great suffering—and via long-distance—all the irrefutable instances of cruelty that he had not inflicted on my mother but she on him. “What difference does it make if he continues to invent things?” I asked myself. 

Portrait of author Domenico Starnone

Actually I realized that it changed a lot. To begin with, I changed, and in a way I didn’t like. It felt, for example, like I was losing the ability to measure my words, an art that I had proudly mastered as a teenager. Even the question I had considered yelling at him (“And all those times I remember seeing you hit her, right up until she started dying, what were they? Love taps?”) was poorly calibrated. When I tried writing it out, I was struck by its crass and impudent style. I seemed to be making exaggerated claims not unlike those of my father. It was as if I wanted to reproach and shout at him for slapping and hitting my mother even as she lay on her death bed, punching her with the expertise of the gifted boxer he said he had been at the age of fifteen, over at the Belfiore gym on Corso Garibaldi. 

This was a clear sign that all it took was the slightest hint of my age-old anger and fear to make me lose my poise and erase all the distance I had managed to put between us while growing up. If I actually spoke those impulsive words, it would be like allowing my worst dreams to blend with his lies. It’d be like giving him credence, agreeing to see him the way he chose to represent himself, as someone you don’t mess around with, which was what he learned as a kid from European champion Bruno Frattini, who egged him on in the ring, and encouraged him with a smile. “Go on and hit me, Federí! Hit me! Kick me!” What a champ. He had taught him that you dominate fear by striking first and striking hard, a principle he never forgot. And since that time, whenever the occasion arose and without the least preamble, he’d size up his victim and proceed to bash the bones of anyone who tried to boss him around. 

To be good enough, he started training on Saturdays and Sundays at the Giulio Luzi sports club. “Giulio Luzi? Not the Belfiore?” I’d ask with a hint of spite. “Giulio Luzi, Belfiore, whatever, they’re all the same,” he’d reply gruffly. And then he went on: the person responsible for introducing him into the sports club for the first time was none other than Neapolitan featherweight champion Raffaele Sacco, who happened to be walking down the street while he was fighting tooth and nail with a gang from the neighborhood near the railroad station that used to regularly throw rocks at him and his brother Antonio. Sacco, who was eighteen at the time, stepped into the fray. He threw a couple of punches in those sonofabitches’ faces and then, after praising Federí for his courage, conducted him to the Giulio Luzi or the Belfiore or whatever the hell you want to call it. 

That was where my father started boxing, and not just with Raffaele Sacco and Bruno Frattini but also with the latter’s protégé, Michele Palermo, the massive Centobelli, and tiny Rojo, champions one and all. He made swift progress. A kid named Tammaro learned it the hard way when he harassed him as he was walking home from school with his brother Antonio. “You? A boxer? What a joke, Federí!” he taunted him. Without a word, my father knocked him flat with a left hook to the chin. Then he turned to a friend of Tammaro’s who stood there paralyzed with terror and said, “When he wakes up, tell the bastard that next time I’m going to kick his ass, not just his face.” 

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Without thinking twice, my father reached over and, with his left hand, grabbed the collar of the shoe-shine boy who had spoken those words, even though he was big, tough, and around thirty, and planted an uppercut on that Neanderthal’s foul mouth

His ass. I was frightened by those stories. I was disturbed, too, because I had no idea how to protect my own brother from the kids who threw rocks at us, the way he had done for his brother. I was worried about heading out into the world without knowing how to land a punch. And I felt anxiety, even later on as an adult, when I saw how well my father could do the voices of violence, the posturing, the gestures, kicking and punching the air. 

In the meantime, he seemed to derive enormous pleasure from his ferocity, from the way he knew how to deploy it. He used to tell me those stories to incite my admiration. Now and then he succeeded, but for the most part I felt a combination of distress and fear, which stayed with me longer. A case in point: the two shoe-shine boys on Via Milano, in Vasto, at 7pm on a summer evening. My father, seventeen at the time, and his brother Antonio, fifteen, were on their way back from the gym on Corso Garibaldi. Suddenly it started to rain. The two boys—it was Saturday and they were wearing their fascist uniforms, something my father emphasized proudly, even decades later, in the belief that his outfit made him look sharp and terribly manly—ran for cover under the porticoes of the Teatro Apollo, where there was already a cluster of other people, including the two shoe-shine boys. There was clamoring, heavy rain, the smell of wet dust. When the shoe-shine boys caught sight of them, they sneered cruelly. “Those two ugly sonofabitches made it rain,” one of them said loudly to the other. Their brutish words offended the boys, their mother, their father, maybe even their ominous black shirts. Without thinking twice, my father reached over and, with his left hand, grabbed the collar of the shoe-shine boy who had spoken those words, even though he was big, tough, and around thirty, and planted an uppercut on that Neanderthal’s foul mouth—Neanderthal he called him, to show how primitive he was—knocking out his two front teeth. Thwack. He punched him so hard that one of the man’s broken teeth—and at this point in the story, he’d wave his index finger in front of me to show me a scar that I couldn’t actually see but to appease him I said yes, Papà, I see it—got wedged into the flesh of his finger. He had to flick his hand hard to make it fall out. 

Whenever he told that story, he always flicked his hand hard, as if the fragment of tooth was still stuck in it. I’d stare at him in horrified devotion: lean and lanky, he had a long face, high forehead, and a slender, elegant nose with delicate nostrils, a nose that definitely didn’t look as if it belonged to a skilled boxer. He always came home from work furious, as if he had just knocked out Tammaro or the shoe-shine boy; always the victim of some urgent, dramatic situation; always ready, even if faced with a multitude of enemies and it was inevitable that he’d get beaten to a pulp, of courageously chasing back fear. Because he was a man who had been initiated into the world of boxing by none other than a European heavyweight champion. He was a man who wouldn’t let anyone kick him around, much less his wife. If anything, he’d be the one to kick her around. Toe kick—that’s what I was always afraid he would do to her when he came home—and heel stomp. 

Portrait of translator Oonagh Stransky