When Jhumpa Lahiri started learning Italian, she wrote on the first page of an Italian dictionary a formula: “provare a = cercare di” (try to = seek to). Around that time, a friend of hers predicted she would soon be living in an Italian dictionary. The prediction was correct: without knowing it, that formula encapsulated the uncertain process of adopting Italian as a new literary language. Years later, she walked into a library in Rome, and for the first time, a story came to her in Italian. By then, she had stopped writing in English. She shares this anecdote in her first Italian book, In Other Words (first published in 2016 as In Altre Parole).
One has to love a language to write in it. Changing languages is a great risk for a writer, especially for one who has already developed a style. In 1998, reviewing Milan Kundera’s eighth novel Identity (his second in French), the critic and film director Antoine de Gaudemar wondered where Kundera’s sense of humor had gone; what had happened to the ironies, digressions, and jokes that made his first novels so original? Kundera undoubtedly loved French literature (when he migrated to France in 1950, he started translating—rewriting, really—his first novels, insisting they should be considered part of the French canon), but it is not clear he gained more than he lost when he abandoned Czech, the language that had allowed him to write novels like The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s work is now part of the Italian canon, and her contribution to the language is already significant, having edited a remarkable anthology of modern Italian short stories. Reading her first two books in Italian offers a moment to reflect on what she has gained or lost in her new language.
The story Lahiri imagined in that library is a good place to start. It is about a woman, a translator, who wants to be a different person. She likes her life, she is comfortable with it, but something mysterious compels her to leave, to become invisible in a different city, listening to a foreign language. She arrives in the new city as the season changes. Soon her mind becomes a mirror reflecting everything she observes: strangers walking, running, eating, the landscape mutating, the days getting shorter. One day she walks into a store to try on new clothes. After deciding she will not buy anything, she realizes she has lost her old black sweater. She makes a fuss. But once they find it, she pretends it’s not hers: suddenly, there is something repellent about the familiarity the sweater conveys. The next day she tries it on again, and something changes: the sweater feels different, and she feels like a different person.
The sweater is a metaphor for language, one of the many Lahiri uses in In Other Words, where the story is collected as “The Exchange.” For her, learning and writing Italian is like crossing an ocean without a life vest, like meeting someone for the first time and sensing an immediate connection, or like a lonely soldier walking in the desert. In Other Words is a memoir, but to read it just as testimony is a mistake. Even at her most personal and meditative, Lahiri’s brilliance is that of a fiction writer. Throughout the book, one feels Lahiri creating a fictitious character, a reflection of herself that only speaks and writes Italian. This woman, like the translator, has lived her entire life at the margins, imagining the endless possibilities that one moment can offer, seeking a metamorphosis that would allow her to fade away from the world. One could compare Lahiri’s character with another elusive figure, Vladimir Nabokov’s Sebastian Knight, whose mind “was a turmoil of words and fancies, uncomplete fancies and insufficient words.” Like Nabokov, Knight decides to write in English instead of Russian; like Lahiri (and everyone who writes in a second language), “the very fact of his not being quite sure about certain words distressed him enormously…”
In Whereabouts (first published in Italian as Dove Mi Trovo in 2018 and translated into English by Lahiri), we find a nameless woman going in and out of rooms, restaurants, bars, visiting her mother, meeting now and then a man who could be her lover, swimming, reading. Every small chapter is a place—a museum, a pool, a bookstore—but the places only serve as a decanter for the woman to pour her thoughts and memories. We know she is a middle-aged academic, that growing up her father didn’t like to spend money or travel anywhere, that she has few friends, that her mother taught her what solitude is. However, these details only matter within the space where she thinks about them, for they punctuate her transitions from place to place.
In a chapter titled “In the Piazza” the protagonist meets for a coffee with a teenager who comes from a different country. Her father is a friend of hers, a painter who lives outside the city. The protagonist admires the girl’s independence, her rebellious spirit, her beauty: “A girl who smiles as she speaks, as if to declare to the world, see how happy I am.” This girl is a sharp contrast from the protagonist, who at that age didn’t know love, obeyed her parents, and knew she would end up alone. “I’m envious,” she says, “I still regret my squandered youth, the absence of rebellion.” However, by the end of the chapter, the girl confesses she is the one who is envious—for her, the protagonist’s solitude is itself rebellious. “I want to be a strong woman, independent, like you,” she says.
“Solitude,” the protagonist says at one point, “requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Part of this discipline involves observing other people’s loneliness, and listening to them. There is a moment when the protagonist goes to her favorite museum (which is always empty) and sits in a big room to observe the light coming in from the window. She notices there is another person in the room, an elegant woman who is surely a foreigner. The protagonist realizes the woman is not there to appreciate the art, but to rest. Away from the world, she sits in the room and “studies her swollen feet, her shoes, and thinks about all the streets she’s walked… She’s not moved by the beauty of this room. She takes advantage of it to restore her energy.” And in the chapter titled “In the Pool,” she listens to a group of women of different ages chatting in the locker room. One talks about her son’s cancer, another about a woman’s son who died in a car accident. The protagonist wants to lose herself in the water, to stop the stream of anxieties that color her life, but the stories the women tell each other break the illusion. “All that suffering doesn’t leak out like the water that travels into my ear now and then. It burrows into my soul, it wedges itself into every nook of my body.”
Every chapter is a little story with a seemingly trivial anecdote, but reading one after another forces the reader to share the sense of dislocation the character feels. However, this feeling is not static. There is a narrative arc: the novel begins with the protagonist looking at a marble plaque she encounters every day in memory of a man she never knew—though she’s aware of when he died, and the day he was born, his name and last name. The plaque also bears a note from the man’s mother thanking everyone who spends a moment remembering her son. “Thinking of the mother just as much as the son, I keep walking, feeling slightly less alive,” the protagonist says. As we follow her, there are moments when she reconsiders the decisions she has taken, the risks she has avoided, the regrets that accompany her wherever she goes. She visits her father’s crypt and remembers that the only time he had agreed to travel abroad, he had felt sick the day before and died the next. “I mourned those wasted tickets, and that trip never taken, more than I mourned for you.” If she had gone on that trip, perhaps she would have been a different, braver woman. By the end of the novel, she knows that the only way of escaping her regrets—the only way of feeling slightly more alive—is by finally going on a long trip.
To change, to start again in a different place—this is the greatest desire of most of Lahiri’s characters. Since her first stories in Interpreter of Maladies, she has explored the ineffable sense that one can never grasp experiences but only observe them from a distance, that one can never fully belong anywhere, and the suffering this produces. Life only has meaning when we seek to change. At the end of the novel (in a chapter titled “Nowhere”), the protagonist says, “Because when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light… Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed, turned around. I spring from these terms.” These are the terms Lahiri was trying to, seeking to find in Italian: this is her creed as a fiction writer.
Reading In Other Words and Whereabouts, one concludes that Lahiri has become a more laconic writer, like Cesare Pavese and Antonio Tabucchi. Her preoccupations remain the same, but her prose has narrowed the scope of her observations: rather than describing the richness of colors, she now meditates on the light; her characters are now nameless and don’t have families in different countries, but they are still outsiders; what gets lost in translation when someone uses a second or third language to communicate with others remains at the center of her work, only now it feels like a silent struggle that others hardly notice, a secret. Inevitably, one will compare her work in English to her work in Italian. In doing so, readers should remember that, as the poet Wisława Szymborska once wrote, every beginning is only a sequel. In this sequel, Lahiri has gained more than she’s lost.