Jhumpa Lahiri’s Quietly Bracing New Novel

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Quietly Bracing New Novel

A Solitary Trade

Jhumpa Lahiri’s spartan new fiction.


The protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” the title story in her 1999 debut short story collection, is a multilingual tour guide named Mr. Kapasi who speaks, to varying degrees, English, French, Russian, Portuguese, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Gujarati, and Italian. One day, he drives a young Indian American couple and their children to visit a temple on the coast of the Bay of Bengal devoted to the Hindu sun god Surya. On the long drive there, he tells them about his other job as an interpreter in a doctor’s office. The wife, Mrs. Das, becomes fascinated by this, telling him she finds the idea of translating for sick and frightened patients “romantic.” Mr. Kapasi revels in this attention and starts seducing Mrs. Das with stories about “the young woman who had complained of a sensation of raindrops in her spine” and “the gentleman whose birthmark had begun to sprout hairs.” He is thrilled by the notion of a love affair with her, and his head spins with hope: It is a feeling “he used to experience long ago when, after months of translating with the aid of a dictionary, he would finally read a passage from a French novel, or an Italian sonnet, and understand the words, one after another, unencumbered.”

That Lahiri would compare the sensation of falling in love to feeling at ease in a language should have signaled then that all was not well. The daughter of Bengali immigrants who settled in Rhode Island, Lahiri saw firsthand the way her parents’ accented English was held against them in America. Though she later achieved success as a writer in the language herself, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies, the heavy burden that English imposed on her family remained a source of resentment. “For practically my whole life,” she would later write, “English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted…. English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it.” Yet Bengali, the primary language of her early childhood, created nearly as much uneasiness for her. Like many other heritage speakers, Lahiri is not entirely fluent in her first language. “I don’t know Bengali perfectly,” she has said. “I don’t know how to read it or even write it. As a result, I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language, too.”

In 2012, Lahiri moved to Rome and began to write exclusively in Italian. It was a language she had studied on and off since her 20s. (In graduate school, she wrote a dissertation on representations of Italian architecture in 17th-century English drama.) In Italian, she seemingly found something like a way out from English and Bengali. “I had to joust between those two languages,” she explained, “until, at around the age of twenty-five, I discovered Italian. There was no need to learn that language. No family, cultural, social pressure. No necessity.”

Lahiri published her first book in Italian, Il Altre Parole, in 2015. A memoir about her relationship with language and her decision to learn Italian, the book was translated as In Other Words by Ann Goldstein, famous to Anglophone readers as the translator of Elena Ferrante. In 2018, Lahiri published her first novel in Italian, Dove Mi Trovo, which now appears in English as well, in Lahiri’s translation, as Whereabouts.

A quietly bracing work of fiction, Whereabouts follows a lonely, middle-aged woman wrestling with what it means to have committed herself to a life lived alone. The woman remains unnamed throughout, a fascinating move for Lahiri, whose 2003 novel, The Namesake, hinged so much on the importance of names as carriers of generational hope and trauma. The setting of Whereabouts is likewise ambiguous; the most we can safely assume is that it is set in an Italian city popular with foreign visitors in the summer. Thus the main character not only lives alone but is unmoored from any defined cultural geography that would place her within a specific community.

By default, then, the novel marks a dramatic departure from Lahiri’s earlier work, which explored themes of immigration, identity, cultural belonging and unbelonging. In Whereabouts, such questions have been eschewed in favor of something more abstract, disembodied, unidentifiable. In this way, Lahiri forsakes not just English and Bengali but the dynamic these two languages represented for her. Now free of her mother tongue and its primary antagonist, Lahiri looks beyond the immigrant experience for sources of conflict and tension, or so it would seem.

If Whereabouts is intended to mark Lahiri’s freedom from her vexed relationship to language and identity, one wonders why it is also such a sad and lonely story. The novel is composed entirely of the reflections of a single woman, commentaries about the strangers who pass in and out of her life—shopkeepers, people sitting across from her on the train, recollections of family members she infrequently or never sees. Could it be that the result of extricating oneself from identity is not, as is often suggested, universalism but rather a doleful solitude?

W hereabouts is a novel about passing the time and filling up the empty parts of the day. The narrator reflects on getting lunch at her local trattoria, attending the baptism of a colleague’s child somewhere along the coast, buying stockings, visiting her favorite stationery store. At one point, she purchases tickets to the theater and tells us, “This is how I fill up the pages of my agenda, the one I buy at the end of every year at the same stationery store, always the same size and number of pages. Little notebooks in various colors that, with the passing of years, inevitably repeat: blue, red, black, brown, red, blue, black, and so on.”

It is across these little pages that the novel takes us. The recurring characters seem like strangers, even when they are the narrator’s friends, and rarely does one make more than a second or third brief appearance. The closest we get to another major character is the husband of a friend who lives in the neighborhood, but that relationship too is defined by how remote they are even in their closeness, by what it could be rather than what it is. “We have a chaste, fleeting bond,” she remarks. “Two kisses on the cheeks, a short walk along a stretch of road. Without saying a word to each other we know that, if we chose to, we could venture into something reckless, also pointless.” But, at least as far as we know, the recklessness is not acted upon.

Though Lahiri’s prose has always been elegantly understated, the language in Whereabouts is pared down further still. Perhaps this is born out of a forced economy of expression, but the result is refreshing—the kind of exactitude that comes when you use only the words you need. The language feels not thin but reserved and mature, like that of someone who has grown tired of small talk.

Yet interestingly, those are precisely the types of conversation the narrator is relegated to by virtue of her social world. The novel is full of people she sees every day but does not really know. Many of the scenes feature the narrator and her retinue of familiar strangers alone while together, isolated but in shared spaces. “Twice a week,” she says, “I go to the pool. In that container of clear water lacking life or current I see the same people with whom, for whatever reason, I feel a connection. We see each other without ever planning to.” There are also the people who sit alongside her at her favorite trattoria: “I eat alone,” she tells us, “next to others eating alone.” At one point, she attends an academic conference (she is a professor, but it is unclear precisely what she teaches), but much of the chapter’s focus is on a philosopher staying in the next room at her hotel. The two form a habit of meeting at the elevator: “Without planning to,” she explains, “we wait for each other every morning and every evening, and for three days our tacit bonds put me obscurely at peace with the world.”

The narrator of Whereabouts treats this way of life as something to be parsed, studied, and practiced. “Solitude: it’s become my trade,” she reflects, adding, “As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” “Solitude” is the right word; the narrator’s existence certainly could not be called “independence.” The latter term feels too intertwined with feminism and a politics of liberation, and this is not the story of someone who is contemplating the historical or political implications of rejecting motherhood or marriage. What interests her is the fabric of solitude, how it’s stitched together, how absence feels against the skin.

As the novel progresses, we learn that the narrator’s choice to live in solitude is a response to family drama more than any romantic one. Her solitary life is something the narrator has cultivated as a reaction to her unhappy childhood, a childhood that orbited between an overly attached mother and a distant, unaffectionate father.

Her mother, the narrator recalls, has “always been afraid of being alone.” Throughout her childhood, she “kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp.” The narrator becomes determined not to be this way but still worries that she is choosing to live alone out of fear: a fear of needing someone too much, or a fear of not knowing how to need someone at all.

Her late father, on the other hand, never settled easily into the configuration of family. “How can I link myself to another person?” she asks when visiting his grave. As if confronting him, she brings up scenes from her childhood, when he would keep both her and her mother at arm’s length: “Even today I see you walking three feet ahead of her…. You, who chafed at the collective we created, who only wanted to subtract yourself, always, from the equation, throwing it off-balance.” When asked to intervene in arguments between mother and daughter, her father always responded, “Why ask me? I have nothing to do with it.” It is a rejoinder that has stayed with her into adulthood, making her at once wary of connection and ravenous for it.

Halfway through the novel, the narrator sees a young man selling things in her neighborhood—vintage magazines, old silverware, paintings. She asks who the objects belonged to, and he explains that his father could not bring himself to throw away his mother’s things after she died, but he had died too this year, so he was finally cleaning out. The narrator returns each day to buy something new, and slowly her life is filled with the detritus of someone else’s marriage. She begins to drink coffee from the couple’s “chipped cups.” She reads their old magazines on her sunlit balcony, learning “all about the actors and gossip and goings-on of another generation.” Her “spartan life perks up a bit”; surrounded by the wares of another family—their literal and emotional baggage—she feels comforted: “These new acquisitions entertain me, they keep me company.”

So much of Whereabouts is like this. The main character moves in and around the intimate lives of families, just not the ones related to her—a fitting subject for a novel written in another tongue.

Lahiri’s earlier novels revolved around the overlapping tensions of family and community, and they wrestled with these questions against a backdrop defined by its incredible cultural and geographic specificity. The Lowland, her previous novel, was named for a marshy territory in the Kolkata neighborhood where the two brothers at the center of the book grow up (one joins India’s radical Naxalite movement and the other pursues graduate studies in Rhode Island). In The Namesake, Lahiri’s first novel, she portrayed the immigrant experience in heart-wrenching detail, documenting how the pressure to assimilate could pull parent and child apart.

By contrast, family exists in Whereabouts largely as a pretext. Parents, lovers, and friends appear and disappear. Interactions last as long as it takes to drink a cup of espresso. That Lahiri would choose this subject matter for her first novel in Italian, a language she is not bound to by family or any form of communal identity, feels apposite. In her memoir In Other Words, Lahiri observed that as she began to write in Italian, she felt herself moving beyond the specificities of place and all that geography entails. “Today,” she added, as if relieved, “I no longer feel bound to restore a lost country to my parents. It took me a long time to accept that my writing did not have to assume that responsibility.”

In turning to Italian, Lahiri has joined a long tradition of “exophonic writers”—those who adopt, for varying reasons, a different language. Most often, exophony is the result of migration, colonialism, or commercial pressures. With his work banned in the Soviet Union, Vladimir Nabokov was forced to turn to English in order to have a viable career as an author. “My private tragedy,” he wrote in the afterword of Lolita, “is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.” While Chinua Achebe defended his choice to write Things Fall Apart in English rather than his native Igbo, he conceded that the need to do so was a tragic conundrum for the postcolonial author. “Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal, and produces a guilty feeling,” he acknowledged in his famous essay “English and the African Writer.”

For Nabokov and Achebe, English felt unavoidable, whereas Lahiri, by her own account, has no similar need for Italian. “I have only the desire,” she explained in In Other Words. “Yet ultimately a desire is nothing but a crazy need.” Italian enabled something for Lahiri, much in the way that German has done for the Japanese novelist Yoko Tawada. Tawada began studying German at age 22 and writes in both Japanese and her adopted language, consciously using it to complicate how her work as a nonwhite author is received. At one point in her novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada satirizes the publishing industry’s commodification of marginalized identity. When the polar bear, assumed to be a native speaker of Russian, asks whether she can write her memoirs in German, she gets pushback from the frustrated publisher, who is concerned this will make it harder to market her as a writer from an ethnic minority. Speaking at the New York Public Library in 2016, Lahiri made similar comments about how, by writing in Italian, she was throwing a wrench into the assumed centrality of identity. “I am thinking about [identity] really differently right now, and trying to get beyond it,” she told Paul Holdengräber. “[I’m] trying to get to the other side of all of these labels…. ‘Oh, you’re a writer in the English language. Oh, but [you’re] Indian American. Oh, but Kolkata. Oh, but this.’ No!”

What to make of Whereabouts, then, if it is meant to be the product of that freedom? It is arguably her most beautifully written novel, a stunning display of what self-imposed limits can do for the creative process. It is also somber in a way that feels inseparable from how it came into the world. The defiant solitude of the main character, her disciplined disconnectedness, is betrayed by accidental expressions of loneliness: “If I tell my mother that I’m grateful to be on my own,” she says, “to be in charge of my space and my time—this in spite of the silence, in spite of the lights I never switch off when I leave the house, along with the radio I always keep playing—she’d look at me, unconvinced.” I, too, am unconvinced that Italian has freed Lahiri from the immigrant experiences of loss and longing, and how the two unfold within the tense intimacy of family. Yet perhaps this novel is best read as a rumination on the consequences of such a fantasy. To disentangle yourself from community is to be alone, with no one left to talk to, at least not in a shared language.

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