The Shock of the Fourth Chapter (Spoiler Alert!)

Stop right there. If you’re interested in modern Italian literature, don’t read one word farther. I’m serious. Surprise is important. And if you read any farther, you’re going to learn the very first surprise of Domenico Starnone’s First Execution, and a literary surprise is not something to be given away lightly.

Okay, I tried to warn you. So there I was, enjoying two pieces of pizza instead of my usual one at lunchtime – the server thought the pieces were too small, and instead generously heaped two on my plate – trying to keep my hands clean and still turn the pages, just finishing the third chapter.

The book is coming out in a month as the Europa release for March. Actually, I already feel better about you reading this, because maybe by then you’ll forget what I’m about to tell you, you’ll forget you’ve ever read this particular blog, and still get surprised the way I did. Admittedly, I tucked into this book immediately because of one reason – it’s a Europa paperback. Certainly the best made paperbacks on the market, a physical pleasure to hold, and the quality is always an international high watermark.

Well, First Execution is no exception. I was immediately captivated. A sixty-plus professor in Naples discovers that his former student Nina has been arrested for armed conspiracy. When he visits her, she urges him to go to her friend’s home, find the book The Death of Virgil, and copy out the underlined passage on page 46. The professor is an idealist, believes she’s fighting in a cause against injustice, and agrees to do it. He goes to the friend’s home, in spite of the danger of being followed, climbs the ladder up the bookshelf to where the book should be, and it’s not there. On his way down, he misses a step and falls, landing on his back, injuring himself.

By this time, the suspense has got me. I’m on my second piece of pizza, and I don’t even remember the first but it’s not on my paper plate anymore.

There’s a short space in the text. Then the professor goes into the friend’s bedroom, and there’s the book by the bed. There’s the passage. “Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding.”

It’s all in that crisp, classy international style, exactly what you expect from Europa.

At that point, you hit Chapter 4.

At first I didn’t understand what I was reading. Finally I realized I seemed to be reading a critique of the story so far. Then the author speaks directly to me, regrets the finding of the book in the bedroom, and decides to cancel that part of the story. Before I realized what had happened to me, I was no longer in an international crime novel, I’d been transported to Italo Calvino country. The author confesses that in reality the student was a boy, that he never went to see him, and doesn’t really like the story very much, anyway.

I’m still trying to catch my breath from that one when a publisher shows interest in those same first chapters for a new anthology called New Beginnings. The author’s interest in the chapters is reawakened, and he creates the next sequence out of sketches that he does before the reader’s very eyes –another former student turns up as a police officer investigating the professor, a student the professor never noticed because he was stupid and ugly.

That’s where I’m at right now – I’ve plunged into Chapter 5, where the finally-named professor, Domenico Stasi, the literary double of the author, Domenico Starnone, may be about to get a rude surprise from the not-very-attractive investigating police officer.

This blog is over. I need to find out what happens next.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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