Another language, another soul.
In her first book written in Italian, In altre parole (In Other Words, translated by Ann Goldstein), Jhumpa Lahiri explains how she reached what to many people seemed a baffling decision: to forsake English, the language in which her four previous books had been written and published to immense critical and commercial success, for a foreign language in which she was not yet fluent.
Born in London but raised from toddlerhood in the US, Lahiri has often described herself as someone who grew up torn between two cultures, that of America and that of her Bengali immigrant parents—a split that has been the dominant theme of her novels and short stories. As they built their new life in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, the Lahiris kept close ties to their roots in Calcutta, where they visited regularly, and Bengali was the language spoken at home. Lahiri portrays her mother as fiercely protective of her Indian identity, unseduced by the common immigrant dream of becoming as like as possible to the native born. “Becoming or even resembling an American,” Lahiri says of her, “would have meant total defeat.”
The effect of this upbringing on Lahiri was to make her feel less blessed by being multiculturally enriched than disoriented, as if she were “from nowhere.” She had two languages, Bengali (her only language until the age of four) and English, but neither could be called truly hers, for, as she puts it, she had not chosen one or the other; rather, each had been “imposed” on her—an unusual way of seeing languages acquired naturally in early life that some might find puzzling. After all, as there is no such thing as a choice of mother tongue, there is no such thing as a choice of motherland, or, for that matter, of a mother. But does that mean they are imposed?
Still, Lahiri yearned for another language, one that would be unquestionably hers precisely because she had chosen it. That she chose Italian was thanks to a visit she made in her twenties to Florence. Though unable to understand the Italian she heard as a tourist, in some deep and mysterious way it spoke to her. She describes the experience almost as an erotic one: “What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.”
After graduating from Barnard College, Lahiri attended Boston University, where she earned four graduate degrees: an MA in English, an MFA in creative writing, an MA in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies. Her first book, the story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won, among other awards, the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. With the three books that followed came an accumulation of literary awards and a growing international audience. Unaccustomed Earth (2008), Lahiri’s second story collection, started out at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was made into an acclaimed film directed by the Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair. The Lowland (2013), her second novel, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize. In 2015 Barack Obama presented Lahiri with a National Humanities Medal.
Given this history, American readers might not have thought that eight years would pass before they would see a new work of fiction from Lahiri, let alone that it would need to be translated for them. But despite the ample rewards of a brilliant career, Lahiri seems never to have been entirely satisfied. It was as if she were nagged by that question known to unsettle even the most successful people: Is that all there is? Once finished with a book, it was dead to her, she says. And to rest on her laurels was clearly antithetical to her nature. The sense of being from nowhere persisted, as did the dream of a third language, and in 2012 she moved to Italy in order to immerse herself in Italian with the goal of mastering it. After much arduous but exhilarating study, she found herself one day writing a short story in Italian—a delightful piece titled “Lo Scambio” (“The Exchange”)—which she included, along with one other story, in her memoir In altre parole (2015). At the same time, she began writing the short essays that would become the rest of that book, which appeared in the US in a dual-language edition in 2016.
According to Lahiri, the switch to Italian has done much to ease her lifelong identity crisis. “A flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali” is how she came to see it; “a rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.” Learning Italian gave her not only a language of her own choosing but a sense of belonging that she had never known before. She could not be an Italian writer, of course, but she could be a writer in Italian. In any case, her decision was made: for now, and perhaps even for good, she would give up writing in English.
Though one might have expected Lahiri to want to translate In altre parole herself, she tells us that to do so would have felt like a betrayal of all the love and labor that had gone into composing the original, whose roughness she acknowledged but was loath to smooth out in English. With Dove mi trovo, her first novel in Italian, she overcame this reluctance. Published in Italy in 2018, it now appears in English as Whereabouts. (Lahiri has also translated other works from Italian, including books by Domenico Starnone, whose novel Scherzetto—Trick—was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for translated literature.)
The unnamed narrator of Whereabouts shares her creator’s discomfiting sense of not belonging (one chapter is titled “Nowhere” and includes this description of what she calls “my abode”: “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around”), but the same possibility for transcendence is not open to her: she already knows Italian. She is Italian (or at least seems to be; in any case, Italy is her homeland), and she shows no interest in mastering another language. She has never lived anywhere outside her home city, which is unnamed but bears many resemblances to Rome, where Lahiri has lived for long periods. She also shares with the Lahiri of In altre parole a certain moodiness that can at times edge into irritability.
The signora is an intelligent and cultivated middle-class woman in her mid-forties who lives alone in a “tiny,” “spartan” apartment. She works as a professor, but though she describes her office and how she prepares to teach class, her students and colleagues are mentioned only in passing—“I’m here to earn a living, my heart’s not in it”—and we finish the book without ever knowing exactly what her field of study is.
From brief chapters, each about three to four pages long, we get glimpses of her life over the four seasons of a year. In a bookstore or a stationer’s, at a museum, eating alone in a trattoria, getting a manicure, visiting her mother or a friend: from these and various other whereabouts she delivers her miscellaneous and mostly fleeting observations. The effect is impressionistic, the story, such as it is, unfolding in fragments, a collection of vignettes and condensed meditations. Most chapters are composed of a single anecdote, and what activity there is is usually of less consequence than the thoughts it gives rise to. Quickly then we are on to the next chapter, dropped into a completely different setting or a new stream of thoughts, and only rarely is material from one chapter revisited in a later one. The dailiness of life is emphasized, and the intimate voice—a diarist’s voice—feels more like that of someone talking to herself than to you. This is not the kind of book that is particularly concerned with making the reader feel welcomed.
The narrator is the only major character, and our understanding of her depends entirely on her subjective point of view. Information about other characters and about her interactions with them is kept to a minimum. Hers is a comfortable but isolated life, plagued by the kinds of feelings that can often make it hard to face the day. What isn’t hard is the diagnosis. Sadness, pessimism, trouble concentrating, nerves, irritability: these are classic symptoms of so-called walking depression. Were suicidal thoughts, or even an attempt at suicide, to be revealed somewhere in these pages, it would not come as a surprise. (In one chapter the narrator speaks of having spent about a year in psychotherapy and makes clear that she did not find it very helpful.)
In a novel about a person who is mentally ill—severely neurotic, say, or experiencing a psychotic break—the drama can write itself. (See, for a famous example, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.) Writing about a listless depressive with seemingly no deep passions or excitements and no significant relationship with any other living being is the far greater challenge Lahiri has set herself.
Central to the narrator’s self-portrait is her inability to connect with other people. One chapter begins, “Today one of my lovers keeps calling.” But the calls are in error (he keeps hitting the wrong key on his phone), and though in the same chapter the two do end up exchanging a few words, we never meet him or hear any more about him or about any of the lovers she was referring to.
There is one man, the husband of a friend of hers, who lives in her neighborhood and whom she is always pleased to run into, as he is noticeably pleased to run into her: “Without saying a word to each other we know that, if we chose to, we could venture into something reckless, also pointless.” Because he is introduced at the beginning of the book, we are tempted to think that the narrator will indeed initiate an affair with this man, but the more we read the more certain we are this will not happen. Not because she is too moral—“Never married, but like all women, I’ve had my share of married men,” she confesses—and not because she is friends with his wife and he is the father of their two children, but because she seems too passive to seduce anyone. (I have no idea what makes her think a history of sleeping with married men is something common to all women.)
Later she tells us about another man, who happens to be in the hotel room next to hers while each is attending the same annual academic conference. She senses a sympathetic vibe from this stranger as, over the three days of the conference, their paths cross at the elevator. The two politely acknowledge each other, but neither ever starts a conversation. Nevertheless, the narrator is soothed by the notion that this man has intuited her misery at having to be there, and that he feels for her. Alone in her room (“the kind of room that makes me hate the world”), she hears him talking agitatedly in a foreign language on the phone and finds herself wondering about him and whomever he might be talking to. She has pegged him as someone like her, at odds with the world, but, unlike her, at peace with himself. Another melancholic is what his sad eyes say, and it is this that draws her. She pictures him undressing and brushing his teeth and throwing himself on his bed, but “he doesn’t interest me sexually,” she says, in case we were wondering. Which we were. Though—talk of multiple lovers aside—it’s hard to imagine her doing what someone with a healthy libido would do: fantasize.
No recent precipitating event is given for the narrator’s condition. When she speaks of the past, we see that she has had the same disposition since she was a schoolgirl. Remembering recess, she says, “Most of the students were euphoric during that short block of time, but I couldn’t stand it. I hated their sharp cries, the spontaneous exaltation.”
An only child of sorely incompatible parents, she takes after her father, another introvert, who died suddenly when she was fifteen. Their relationship was less fraught than that between the narrator and her harshly critical mother, but a visit to his crypt exposes the resentment she still bears toward him “for never protecting me, for having forsaken your role as my defender, all because you felt that you were the victim in that tempestuous household.” And isn’t he really the one to blame for her spinsterhood? “How can I link myself to another person when I’m still struggling, even after your death, to eliminate the distance between you and my mother, the woman with whom you chose, inexplicably, to share a life and have a child?”
As for her mother, a passage about an unhappy family vacation ends with this brutal reflection: “The people she adored—friends, relatives, people around whom she laughed heartily, around whom she never sulked—were all people she didn’t live with. My father and I were her cage.”
From what we can tell, neither in childhood nor adulthood has the narrator ever had a soul mate. If she were asked to pick one word that sums up the nature of most human experience, one imagines her saying disappointing. (Is that all there is?) As happens in real life with people similarly afflicted, everything is seen through the murky lens of dysphoria—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what she finds worth recounting is mostly those things that confirm her own bleak view of life.
If she overhears two people talking, the conversation is sure to disclose some bitterness between them. Whether she is invited to someone’s home for dinner or she has invited someone to her place for tea, things will end disagreeably. A coffee date with a spirited sixteen-year-old who is “full of dreams and plans” depresses her, reminding her of her own “squandered youth” and how much less self-assured than this girl she was at that age. The dazzling beauty of her manicurist leads to the thought that she herself has never been happy with her own face: “Every look in the mirror dismays me” (though elsewhere she describes herself as “attractive enough”). She doesn’t like spring because “every blow in my life took place in spring,” so she is annually reminded “of loss, of betrayal, of disappointment,” though details about these devastating events are not given. A long weekend that she decides to spend out of the city finds her almost immediately tiring of her hotel, her mood darkening: “I turn melancholy when I lie out in the sun. I mourn my unhappy origins.” Watching the sunrise from the roof of her building flips from being something well worth rising at dawn for to something to make you never want to get out of bed again. She recalls a writer’s description of the terror such a vision of the sun once brought him—“I can’t think straight, everything seems futile”—before returning to her apartment “feeling similarly depleted.”
Although a few upbeat moments are scattered through the book—such as a lunch she enjoys in her neighborhood piazza one radiant day, sitting alone but feeling at one with the large, convivial crowd—a disquieting pattern emerges: in almost every ordinary situation there is something to bring the narrator down. When she accepts an offer to spend a few days by herself at a friend’s country place, even as we are enjoying her description of the beautiful house and unspoiled landscape, we suspect something will happen to ruin everything. And only a day after her arrival: “The wind blows as I walk, and the lights in the distant houses make me sad…. I feel the weight of being alone here, of not knowing a soul.” Then, returning from this walk, she spies on the ground outside the house a mouse whose head has been inexplicably sliced off: “In an instant, it stamps out the calm and quiet of this place.” She seriously considers going straight back home. Though she manages, not without emotional tumult, to dump the mouse in the trash, it continues to torment her. She herself is baffled by the intensity of her “absurd terror” but can find no explanation for it. The chapter ends, and we never learn how the rest of her time in the country went, but we can hardly imagine it went well.
The chapter “In the Pool” begins with a description of how much she likes her twice-weekly swim, both for the familiar presence of other swimmers, always the same people, and how being in the water makes her feel “cleansed as if from within.” But, eavesdropping on the chatter of women in the locker room, she hears of grim diseases and accidents and other misfortunes, and she can no longer think of the water as clean. “It reeks of grief, of heartache. It’s contaminated,” she says. Nor is it easy to wash away: “All that suffering…burrows into my soul, it wedges itself into every nook of my body.”
The reader can’t help thinking that surely sometime there must have been locker-room talk of something else—a bit of amusing gossip, maybe? But there is little room for lightness or playfulness in the narrator’s accounts. She never repeats a joke or a funny story. Mending a broken dish one day, she has a mishap with some superglue. Seeing her glue-covered self in the mirror, she says, “After a long time, or maybe for the first time, I burst out laughing.” I had to read it twice. The first time—ever? In her whole life? One hopes this is a wild exaggeration but fears it is not.
No doubt aware of how easily a lonely, unfulfilled, chronically depressed and neurotic middle-aged woman can become an off-putting object of pity, Lahiri gives her protagonist, however keenly sensitive, a certain coldness of heart. (She confesses that, when her father died, she mourned more the loss of a trip to the theater they’d planned to take together than she did his death.) She strives to be honest in her self-analysis and to be always scrupulously precise; she does not strive to be liked. She may be, like her mother, discontented with her lot, and she may be lacking in spirit and confidence, but a strong sense of self nevertheless comes through, and she is indifferent to others’ opinions about her. In her solitude she is more stoic than pathetic. (“Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.”) And she has her pride, her dignity. At times she seems almost to flaunt her independence. If she were an animal she would be a cat.
As the end of the year approaches, a casual exchange with her local barista reveals that the narrator is contemplating a momentous decision. She has been offered a fellowship that will take her to an institution abroad, where her solitude will be replaced with a life of group lunches and dinners and daily professional and social activities with fellow scholars. In other words, a life we’d swear she would hate. And so it comes as a surprise that she decides to go. But, she says, “Something’s telling me to push past the barrier of my life.” There is also a hint that it might be wise to put distance between her and her “infatuation”: the friend from her neighborhood, about whom she finds herself thinking “too often” these days.
Still, this narrative turn is hard to square with what has come before, especially given what we know about her attitude toward her colleagues. At the big annual conference, for example, which she says she never attends without dread, she expresses nothing but loathing for her fellow academics. We do not hear of a single lecture or panel discussion that holds the slightest interest for her, or even about a conversation with another attendee—just as we never hear any dialogue between her and any other professor or student at the school where she teaches. In fact, we see no evidence of any specific intellectual interests on her part, and though a meticulous observer of her own private world, she does not have a philosophical bent. None of the novel’s many brief, subjective meditations leads to a more developed or complex exploration of any broader aspect of the human condition.
About whatever writing or research she might be doing now, or may have done in the past, or plans to do during her fellowship, we learn nothing. It is a curious omission. Though she is said to own “thousands of books” (which seems to conflict with her description of her apartment as tiny and spartan), only once, as I recall, does she ever bring up something she has read in a book. What are those books that she now teaches and that she “once loved so deeply”? Why does she not love them deeply anymore? What are her professional background and discipline? Why is the life of the mind left completely out of this scholar’s obsessive self-examination?
It’s these lingering questions that made the novel’s denouement feel not quite real to me.
Except for one vague reference to “protests downtown,” and another to the problem of mounting uncollected trash, there is nothing in the novel about current events in the narrator’s city, or anywhere else in her country, or in the world. Nothing about the migrant crisis, for example, or about the politics of the EU, or the continent’s overwhelming economic concerns. The narrator has only one subject—her personal life and her own intense feelings about it—and it’s this deliberate narrowness, along with the repetitive pattern of her behavior and the persistence of her dejection, that makes the book often feel like a case history.
I found the unsentimental, even ruthless, and at times excruciating account of chronic depressive disorder in Whereabouts utterly convincing. The book will strike a chord with anyone who has ever struggled with similar emotional pain—perhaps most forcefully with those who, like the narrator, have borne the wounds of inept and insufficiently loving parents well into adulthood, and who can say with her, “My childhood harbors few happy memories.”
But for all the gloom rising from these pages, there is more than a whiff of the romantic as well. Write about a refined single woman with a melancholy temperament and an exquisite sensibility moving languidly through her beautiful old European city, and a certain amount of romanticizing is all but inescapable. And though we all know how dangerous it is to romanticize depression in real life, in a lyrical novel such as this one it can be very seductive. Needless to say, I suppose, the book is more romantic in the Italian.
I started studying Italian in high school, and though even a year living in Rome could not make me a fluent speaker, I know what Lahiri is talking about when she describes the great pleasure to be had from learning a new language. (I’ve always thought it must be like the pleasure people get from doing challenging puzzles, an activity that is said to release endorphins.) The Italian of Dove mi trovo is more sophisticated than that of In altre parole, but both books reflect what Lahiri has described as the sparser, more basic language that is the result of writing in an adopted tongue, and that is no doubt also the reason for the novel’s simple structure and the limited scope of its subject matter.
The bare-bones style, not to mention the replacement with European characters of the Indians and Indian-Americans whose stories readers found so engaging in Lahiri’s previous fiction, won’t please everyone, of course, and her metamorphosis into a writer in Italian will surely continue to meet with the kind of skepticism and disapproval she describes in her memoir:
If I mention that I’m writing in a new language these days, many people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it. They say they don’t want to read me translated from a foreign tongue. They don’t want me to change. In Italy, even though many have encouraged me to take this step…I’m still asked why I have a desire to write in a language that is much less widely read in the world than English. Some say that my renunciation of English could be disastrous, that my escape could lead me into a trap. They don’t understand why I want to take such a risk.
But Lahiri rejects the idea of writing what people might want or expect from her and welcomes the hazards of being less adept and less secure in her new language. “How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted?” she asks herself. “Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect.”
I admire her stubborn insistence on the path she has chosen, which takes courage—a virtue perhaps especially bracing to see at a time when most other writers I know are feeling uncertain and cowed. Something told her to push past the barrier of her life, and if her decision has really brought her the extraordinary joy and satisfaction she tells us it has, who’s to complain? “I was looking for happiness,” she explained to an interviewer, “and I found it in Italian.” These troubled days I’d tell anyone who’s managed to seize some happiness: Tighten your grip, never let it go. Besides, no matter what people say, Write what you want to write is still the best advice.