Jhumpa Lahiri made her name with two collections of stories – Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008) – in which a range of characters negotiate the kinds of tension that Lahiri herself may have experienced growing up in New England as the daughter of Bengali immigrants. Families are torn between different cultures and languages, children divide their loyalties between Eastern parents and Western partners. Her plots are driven by polarities of feeling: the desire to belong, to remain within the safe nexus of traditional relationships and close family ties, and the contrary desire for independence. Generational hierarchies are inverted when a savvy child has to protect her ‘foreign’ parents in a society through which she moves more easily than they do; at the same time, they scold her for being ‘too integrated’.
This sense of geographical, cultural and linguistic displacement is also present in Lahiri’s novels. In both The Namesake (2003) and The Lowland (2013), characters move between the US and the subcontinent, become involved in political movements, find themselves at the mercy of historical events and are alternately hampered, sheltered or inspired by Indian and American customs, particularly those concerning marriage and children. Dress codes and eating etiquette provide a constant source of conflict and comedy.
In 2012, Lahiri moved to Italy with her husband and children. Her memoir, In Other Words (2016), describes the experience of learning to speak and write in Italian. It was ‘a flight’, she says, ‘from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali’. For the first time, she was working in a language she had chosen, and the book has the heady tone of someone in love with their own boldness, the kind of excitement that in her earlier work would invariably have led to disappointment. The two stories added to the end of In Other Words – Lahiri’s first attempts at writing fiction in Italian – are perhaps the more intriguing part of the book. In ‘Half Light’, a man dreams he is being driven by his wife in a car that’s falling to pieces. Waking, he wonders if she’s having an affair. In ‘The Exchange’, a woman who has tried on some clothes in a fashion designer’s apartment can’t find her sweater and so is unable to return to her own life. When one is found she can’t believe it’s hers. The emotions here are familiar from Lahiri’s earlier writing – disorientation, anxiety about identity, desire to change, fear of change – but the specificity that characterised the earlier stories has gone. There isn’t ‘much of a setting’, as Lahiri put it.
In Other Words and The Clothing of Books, an extended essay, were published as parallel texts, with the original Italian opposite the English, as if to stress the achievement of writing in a newly-acquired language as well as a tension between cultures. In Other Words was translated by Ann Goldstein, who tends to preserve the supposed flavour of the Italian in lexical and syntactical calques, so that the prose often seems less accomplished than we have come to expect of Lahiri. The Clothing of Books, by contrast, was translated into lucid English by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, Lahiri’s husband, and carries no memory of its Italian origins. But was that seamlessly confident English what Lahiri wanted?
Her latest novel, Whereabouts, is the first she has translated herself. Published without the Italian, it offers an altogether more interesting solution to the dual nature of her bilingual texts. It’s a novel with radical ambitions: it seeks to be inside and outside two literary traditions, neither here nor there. At one point, the narrator remarks: ‘Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around, I’m related to these related terms. These terms are my abode, my only foothold.’ The sense of precarity is even greater in the Italian, where most of the words begin with the negating ‘s-’ prefix: ‘Disorientata, persa, sbalestrata, sballata, sbandata, scombussolata, smarrita, spaesata, spiantata, stranita: in questa parentela di termini mi ritrovo. Ecco la dimora, le parole che mi mettono al mondo.’ A literal rendering of the sentence would read: ‘Disoriented, lost, unsettled, unpacked, thrown off course, shaken up, mislaid, displaced, uprooted, dazed: in this kinship of terms I find myself again. Here is my home, the words that bring me into the world/give birth to me.’ Disorientation itself is displaced when it moves from language to language. It’s hardly surprising then that the narrator is obsessed by issues of vulnerability and protection.
The narrator of Whereabouts remains nameless, as does the Italian city in which the novel unfolds. It is ‘vast’, we are told at one point, although our narrator mostly sticks to her neighbourhood – a piazza, a few shops, a couple of cafés. Various clues point to Rome (where Lahiri lives) but other details – the repeated references to crossing ‘the border’, for instance – don’t match up. The narrator has spent her whole life in this place, but we’re never sure where home actually is.
We do know that she is in her mid-forties and lives in a small apartment on a busy street. She has an office at a university but we don’t know what she teaches, only that her ‘heart’s not in it’. She speaks to others about her work projects, but we aren’t told what they are. She drives but doesn’t own a car. She attends an annual conference with her colleagues, but we don’t learn the subject of the conference or where it takes place. She regularly sits down to write, and when asked by her analyst to recount a positive experience from the past, she speaks of holding a pen in her hand and writing ‘a sentence or two’. In Italian, the description includes the word piacere – ‘pleasure’ – but the English does not. Neither version tells us what it is she writes.
The novel is arranged in 46 sections of two, three or four pages. Many could stand alone as intriguing short stories or thoughtful sketches, though certain characters recur, and over the arc of a year or so a bigger picture is teasingly assembled and a subtle tension builds up. The majority of the section titles indicate place – ‘In the Office’, ‘At the Museum’, ‘On the Balcony’ – suggesting a fascination with location. We learn that if the narrator has to choose between sleeping in a small room or a large one, she will choose the small – and indeed these short narrative sections might themselves be thought of as small safe rooms in a large scary building.
Lahiri seems most assured in tight spaces. But although she often speaks of her desire for control, she acknowledges its unattainability. There’s a certain thrill in losing control, or in struggling to achieve it – in a foreign language, say, or in the company of strangers. Discussing the Italian edition of Whereabouts in 2018, Lahiri revealed that the novel’s final section had been written first. She described a train journey during which she was distracted from her book by five rumbustious foreigners, who spoke a language that she didn’t recognise and whose relationships to one another she couldn’t fathom. As soon as the group had departed, she jotted down her feelings in Italian. Pleased with what she had done, she began a series of similar sketches until the novel emerged. ‘On the Sidewalk’, the novel’s opening section, is Lahiri’s description of a small marble plaque near her home in Rome, which commemorates a man who died in a road accident.
These revelations are useful because they explain, or legitimise, our sense of congruence between the narrator and the author. The protagonist isn’t Lahiri, or even Lahiri’s alter ego. She didn’t grow up between two cultures, isn’t married, doesn’t have children, hasn’t won the Pulitzer Prize, was born and raised in Italy, has always lived in the same city, and so on. Yet she sounds very much like Lahiri sounds in interviews. She is troubled by the same tensions and emotions. Like many of the characters in the early stories, she is attracted and repelled by friends’ marriages and drawn to the domestic bric-à-brac of other people’s lives. She buys various knick-knacks from a neighbour whose father has died, eager to possess crockery and ornaments that others have lived with. ‘I always prefer being surrounded by things that don’t belong to me,’ she says elsewhere. Towards the end of the book, at a long overdue turning point in the narrator’s life, she follows a woman who looks and dresses just like her through the streets of the neighbourhood:
What’s her face like? Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? … Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? Is she going to stop to drink some fruit juice or have a gelato?
One suspects that Lahiri is teasing us here. ‘My double,’ the narrator continues, ‘seen from behind, explains something to me: that I’m me and also someone else.’ She goes on to wonder if anyone else has noticed the coincidence of these ‘two women, twinned, strangers to one another, who walk together, also separately’.
The blurring of author and character gives the novel a sense of urgency, particularly because the narrator is hardly in a happy place. The novel sustains a triumphantly controlled melancholy, in which pleasure and stability are achieved through the daily micromanagement of feelings of displacement and inadequacy. Where does all this unease come from? Why does the narrator need the noise of traffic to fall asleep? Why does she leave the lights on and the radio playing in her apartment when she goes out? Why does she weigh herself every morning and frequently imagine she is falling ill? Her malaise is both more disconcerting than that of Lahiri’s previous protagonists, and also a greater source of fascination, in part because she withholds so much. Consider the narrator’s relationship – or non-relationship – with the unnamed love interest to whom five of the novel’s sections are dedicated. He is a man she ‘might have been involved with … shared a life with’. Instead he married a friend of hers. The two ‘bump into’ each other with suspicious frequency. He ‘always looks happy to see me’. They chat, they have a coffee. ‘Now and then as we’re walking our synchronised bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap.’ They go into a shop where the narrator buys underwear and he helps her choose the colour. ‘Your husband’s got a great eye,’ the sales woman says. ‘If we chose, we could venture into something reckless,’ the narrator reflects. Then adds: ‘also pointless’. They stand near a bridge over the river watching the shadows cast by passersby, ‘vaporous shapes … like inmates who proceed, silently, towards a dreadful end’. The man is intrigued by the difficulty of photographing this phenomenon. Whereabouts teems with memento mori.
On another occasion, the narrator overhears the man arguing with his wife, her friend, in the street and follows them at a discreet distance. ‘They pay no attention to passersby, they’re not ashamed of fighting in public.’ It’s the kind of behaviour that leaves the narrator both envious of their vitality and appalled by their bad taste. In any event, such intensity, the readiness to surrender one’s dignity, is unavailable to her. The marital spat doesn’t represent an opportunity that she wishes to exploit. Rather, she is upset to see her friends made ugly by a silly quarrel. The lives of couples and families constitute a foreign country: exotic, dangerous, potentially vulgar. Eating alone in a trattoria, the narrator listens to a conversation between a recently divorced man and his young daughter, who is refusing to stay overnight at his flat. ‘Apparently the mother left because he was cheating on her, a passionate affair that’s already ended.’
Months later, the narrator and her would-be lover meet in the supermarket, his trolley overflowing, her basket virtually empty. Accepting his offer of a lift home, she finds his car ‘a little disgusting, covered with crumbs, the detritus left by his children’. He invites her to share a bar of chocolate, which he has to eat in secret because his wife is concerned about his blood sugar. She finds herself drawn into their marital orbit as a harmless satellite. ‘The tenderness he sets aside for me is enough,’ she tells herself.
In winter, she joins the man and his two children on a day trip, while his wife is ill at home. They find themselves in a hilltop village at dusk. They watch the sunset from a small sheltered courtyard. ‘I dream of inhabiting it,’ the narrator says, ‘of withdrawing there, away from everything. He’s standing beside me, we admire it together, and before heading out he turns to look at me. “Stunning”, he says. The word burns inside me, but I can’t tell if he’s talking about me or the place we’re in.’ Not long after this, the man phones her at an unexpected time of day. Will this be the moment to take things a step further? No, his wife’s father is seriously ill and he wants to know if the narrator will look after the house and walk the dog while they’re away. The narrator takes evident pleasure in her custodial role, making sure everything is in order, examining their photographs, acknowledging their family intimacy. She enjoys being pulled along by the dog with ‘his careful steps, his determined muzzle’. Whereabouts is not without wry humour. ‘Our walks together thrust me forward, and though he pulls me, I’m the one holding the leash.’
Her forlorn flirtation with this man is by no means the narrator’s only experience of romance. In her twenties, she allowed herself to be picked up by a man in his fifties, ‘unhappily, permanently married’. They had a fling. ‘I had no idea where he lived with his wife, I never asked which city he returned to.’ In a bookshop, she runs into a man with whom she was involved for many years, a hypochondriac who invited her to protect him. She had assumed she was ‘the centre of his universe’ and expected they would marry, but eventually discovered there was another woman in his life, someone who did the mothering on the days she had to be somewhere else.
In the middle of the novel, just as you feel you have some grasp of who the narrator is and what her life is like, a section opens with: ‘Today one of my lovers keeps calling.’ What does this mean? How many lovers does she have? And why haven’t we been told about them? The calls turn out to be accidental. She overhears the man talking in a restaurant, in the street, at work, ‘enthusiastically, only not to me’. She feels betrayed. ‘Our communication, of which he’s ignorant, nettles me. It makes me feel particularly alone.’ Again she is peripheral to another person’s life. When he finally calls to invite her to dinner, she turns him down.
Alongside these unsatisfactory relationships are others that bring pleasure and reassurance, with the local shopkeepers, the café waiters and the trattoria owners of her neighbourhood. With bus drivers and with the women she encounters in the changing room at the swimming pool. With the young woman at the beautician’s. The Italian setting emerges convincingly in these encounters, a Latin ease in cultivating friendly, unthreatening, and above all stable exchanges. The man behind the deli counter has ‘known me forever and makes me the same sandwich at least three times a week’, always promising this one will be ‘the best ever’. She eats it in the sunshine, ‘each bite, feeling sacred, reminds me that I’m not forsaken.’ The Italian has ‘mi pare un alimento sacro, e so che questo quartiere mi vuole bene’ (‘It seems a sacred food, and I know that this neighbourhood wishes me well/loves me/cares for me’).
This brings us back to the language question. Lahiri eludes every expectation or imagined context the reader brings to the text. We think we’re in Rome, but we’re not. We think our narrator is chaste, but she isn’t. We think something must happen and it doesn’t. Then it does – she announces (to her barista) that she has won a scholarship that we didn’t know she’d applied for. She is leaving her neighbourhood, crossing ‘the border’. Suddenly she is ready for a change. The same is true of the novel’s language. Her metropolitan narrator writes in an educated, spoken-sounding Italian, yet there are all kinds of unexpected shifts in register, archaisms, odd turns of phrase and small borrowings from English. She belongs and doesn’t belong.
There are antecedents for books like this in Italian literature: collections of short pieces by Natalia Ginzburg or Italo Calvino – or Cesare Pavese’s Among Women Only, another novel in which a cool protagonist is both drawn to and repulsed by the intensity of sexual relationships. But the complete immersion in Italian culture evident in Ginzburg, Calvino and Pavese is missing in Whereabouts, and it’s this absence that conveys to the reader the disorientation of the book’s title. The clothes don’t quite fit. ‘Though we’re crowded together,’ the narrator remarks of a lunch to celebrate a baptism, a typically Italian affair, ‘I feel separate from the group.’
In her translation, Lahiri avoids Goldstein’s quaintness, rearranging the syntax and sometimes adjusting the meaning to make the speaking voice more fluent and convincing. Yet something strange remains, something earned from the text’s passage through Italian. The sentences are shorter than those in Lahiri’s earlier work, everything is more controlled. As my own forty years in Italy have shown me, when one writes in a foreign language, one feels, even becomes, to a degree, someone else. And in translating that someone else, rather than writing spontaneously, there is always, as Leopardi observed, something ‘discordant’, something ‘incompatible’. The reader feels spooked, unsettled.
In her memoir, Lahiri suggests that she is most herself when she feels most exposed: ‘I don’t recognise the person who is writing in this new, approximate language, but I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me.’ In Whereabouts, the narrator feels most threatened when she visits her mother. Widowed in old age, she wants to ‘solve’ her own solitude by sharing the narrator’s life – without being remotely interested in what her daughter thinks or does. A backstory comes into view, of an only daughter whose selfish, distracted father failed to protect her from her mother’s manipulations. At last we have the beginning of an ‘explanation’ for the narrator’s disquiet. But again, it doesn’t altogether fit, or at least doesn’t exhaust the subject.
While staying with a friend in the country, the narrator notices something on the path outside the house:
A small grey creature. I know it’s dead, and I, too, immediately stiffen. It’s a mouse. Even though I turn my head away I’ve already seen enough: the delicate, curved tail and the dense, soft coat of fur. But the really disturbing thing is that it’s missing a head. It’s been sliced off. How? And why? Was it another animal that did it? Some savage bird? The decapitated body revolts me, but at the same time it makes me think of a fig, and as I stand there in the freezing cold I think of the fruit I love most in high summer, and the spectacular red of its sweet sun-warmed flesh.
The mouse’s pathetic gore, the lush red of the fig: with this arresting superimposition we arrive at the core of Lahiri’s book – its evocation of a life at once painfully precarious and yet full of small, intensely physical pleasures.