Readings: The Vanished Birds, Trust

These are both books where the story is fractured among narrators who lead wildly different lives in different worlds. The narrators have very different voices and different understandings of the world; their readings of it are contradictory, even adversarial. Both stories are indirectly warped by the considerable gravity of a singular, intense, and unusual connection between two people that runs through most of the book and determines events.

In The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez, that relationship is between Nia, the self-assured captain, and Ahro, the magical orphan boy with Gully Foyle teleportation powers. Nia and Ahro learn to trust each other even though trust does not come naturally or easily to either of them. The book is most fundamentally about this connection, and to explore it, the book cheerfully explodes most of the tropes it sets up. The original Firefly-ish crew, the first found family, quickly abandons ship when asked to take unreasonable risks; the second found-family crew disintegrates in betrayal and violence. The special boy’s special powers—as in The Stars My Destination—represent a freedom beyond all constraint, which prove wonderfully useless for heroic purposes: he is captured, dehumanized, dissected while still alive, converted into an industrial asset, and put to work powering corporate innovations in cheap space travel. There is no heroic rescue, either, only a lifetime of exploitation. The book mildly relents in allowing a final escape at the very end so that Ahro might, perhaps, die in Nia’s arms. I resented this final reunion at first, because it seemed like a sop to that very sentimentality that the book spends so much energy in demolishing, being altogether too close to the stock twee space opera ending of flying off into the sunset, the core of the found family still intact.

But then I thought, perhaps it would have been too grim, to let them die apart. The story does, after all, describe a galaxy very recognizable in its ugliness, where the third world is now many worlds kept poor and indebted by capital, harvested of their resources. Nia is a minor agent of capital just as Ahro is an asset, neither of them ever having much say or even thought in the matter: their lives are simply overtaken by powers and events. This is a story against heroism and complacency, but it does not deny the power or value of human connection, even if that connection is most often tenuous or fleeting. The value of relationships is determined by the persistence of those who relate: neither Nia nor Ahro gives up on the other despite having every reason to despair, and so perhaps it is only right that they get to meet once more in the ruins of their lives.

Such a final meeting is explicitly denied in Trust by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, a denial toward which the whole book builds and seems inevitable only in retrospect (I was expecting a confrontation of some sort.) The core relationship here that between Pietro and Teresa. Where Nia and Ahro had a straightforwardly mother-son relationship that developed in strength over the years and whose consistency holds them together while they are apart, the relationship between Pietro and Teresa is more treacherous, more fluid. They begin as teacher and student, then lovers in their twenties, and finally, keepers of each other’s most terrible secrets. As ex-lovers with marriages and lovers and lives of their own, they remain uneasy correspondents, entering into what they call—Pietro and Teresa each accuse the other of coming up with the idea—an ethical marriage, a connection made purely of mutually assured destruction.

Pietro, deeply insecure despite his talents (like Ahro, he is singularly blessed, though his power is the uncanny charisma with which he seduces everyone he encounters) and successes in life, struggles to think of himself as a good person in his own right: does he do the right thing only because he fears that Teresa will punish him by revealing his secret to the world if he strays? Is he good only because he fears to be revealed as contemptible? In this way he does not cheat on his wife or abandon his children, nor does he become politically corrupt or make enemies in society, and so this book, too, explodes the tropes of its genre. Pietro still lives in unacknowledged terror of Teresa his whole life, even though, she tells us airily, she has long since forgotten those old secrets. Even at the end, as a lionized old man, he cannot bring himself to face her a final time at a ceremony in which she is to give a speech in his honour. Even in their seventies, he fears what she might say, how even nearing the ends of their long full lives, she might (and here, offhandedly, she seems to suggest to us that she still could, that she still really might) retroactively undo him with a word.