A few years ago I read Budapest: A Novel, by the renowned Brazilian musician Chico Buarque. The story of a man who falls in love with Magyar—and its proxy in the form of a seductive tutor, Kriska—the novel contains scant information about Budapest. But it is original in its depiction of a Brazilian who wants a new identity and to fashion it in a language unrelated to his origins. The adventure begins when Jose, a ghostwriter on his way back to Rio from a conference in Istanbul, must disembark in Budapest because of a terrorism scare. Like another novel about selfhood and language—the allegorical Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, where the conference-bound narrator gets on the wrong flight and winds up in some Babel that may also be Budapest—the opacity of the language overwhelms him. Then bewilderment becomes infatuation.
Is it an exaggeration to say that a second language can provide us with a new self? On the evidence of Katherine Russell Rich’s Dreaming in Hindi (Mariner; $14.95), immersion in another language results in moments of seeming "possession" by it. While less ecstatic, Deborah Fallows’s Dreaming in Chinese (Walker; $22) is also a story about how learning a language permitted her to inhabit more thoroughly an alien culture. You could say that sympathy and possession are weak and strong forms of the same outcome—a change of mind following mimeticism. The effect of mimicking another tribe’s sounds is enough to break down fluency in one’s mother tongue and even change the set of one’s jaw. One of the private benchmarks many language learners use to measure their degree of absorption is whether they dream in it, so it is no accident that two unrelated books on Hindi and Chinese invoke the dream as the vehicle for building on a new incarnation of oneself (being in India, Rich makes good use of that karmic metaphor) or for merging with the laobaixing (Chinese for "the common folk").
Rich’s story is a familiar one: an American on the plateau of middle age seeks renewal of purpose in—not unpredictably—India. But the linguistic research she intersperses throughout the book, and the amount of scrutiny she casts on her progress in Hindi, turns her quest into a case study on reorganizing the brain. Learning a language is "a preoccupation of the disoriented," she proposes:
This might explain the pattern I observed when I first began taking Hindi lessons. People would exclaim, "My daughter’s doing that! She was having trouble at Smith and had to drop out for a semester, and so she’s decided to study Mandarin!" Someone had retired and was learning Basque in a chatroom. Another, recovering from a breakup, was hot in pursuit of Greek.
Rich had, at 37, decided that she wanted "a more artistic life," but she had also endured two bouts of cancer, and language was going to be her cognitive therapy. It inspires her to poetic flights: she can hear "records of distant migrations" in its Sanskrit and Persian loan words; she is amused by the English loan words such as svimming kaustyoom (swimming costume) and motar gaadi (motor car) not in use in the United States "since Agatha Christie’s time." She swears that thinking in sentences where the verb goes at the end of the sentence induces physical vertigo. The disorientation begins her transformation, and it is the same kind of disorientation that confronts the poetry reader who falls for an incantatory rhythm, or who must work to synthesize line breaks, in order to arrive at a conclusive insight. Rich cites the linguist A.L. Becker: "The delight of defamiliarization is one of the genuine pleasures of languaging." Rich delights in dreaming in Hindi she doesn’t understand; she delights in the fact that her English "sometimes now feels spotty." She regresses to a childlike state, half understanding, half guessing what the adults around her are saying. Later she will describe as adolescent the feeling she gets when she understands pretty well what others are saying but lacks the expressive power to make her own desires known.