The title of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), refers to a character who translates ailments for a doctor. Lahiri herself interpreted the emotional maladies of first- and second-generation Bengali immigrants in that work, and continued to plumb the pain of exile in the books that followed: The Namesake (2003), Unaccustomed Earth (2008) and The Lowland (2013), the latter of which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the US National Book Award.
With Whereabouts, first published in Italy as Dove mi trovo in 2018, Lahiri takes a sharp turn in her fiction, deliberately tying her hands behind her back by writing in Italian, which she learnt as an adult. As she describes in her 2016 memoir In Other Words, also written in Italian, she moved her family to Rome for three years to pursue her passion for the language.
Fearful of tinkering too much with the text, she passed the translation into English of In Other Words to Ann Goldstein, the brilliant translator of authors including Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. But although another translator was initially engaged for Whereabouts, Lahiri decided to give it a whirl herself.
The book follows an unnamed narrator in her mid-forties in an unnamed Italian city (although its sampietrini cobblestones suggest Rome). It’s told in vignettes at various locations — “at the trattoria”, “in the piazza”, “at the beautician” — and, most often, “in my head”.
The narrator is ambivalent about her work as a writing professor: “I’m here to earn a living, my heart’s not in it.” Single and childless, she lives alone in a spartan flat. She carries a dimly lit torch for a friend’s husband but is aware that an affair would be “reckless, also pointless”. The relationship with her mother, a “disdainful” widow, is strained. “Solitude: it’s become my trade,” the narrator reflects.
Aloneness pushes her into the arms of the city, where she is sustained by her surroundings and casual acquaintance, in the grand tradition of the flâneur. As Lauren Elkin explored in Flâneuse (2016), it’s a genre historically dominated by men, due to the risks — both to life and reputation — that have often threatened ambling women. The narrator records her observations in little notebooks that she buys annually at the same stationery store.
“Is there any place we’re not moving through?” she wonders, perhaps reflecting Lahiri’s state of transience as she ferried between Rome and Princeton, where she now runs the creative writing programme. “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around . . . These words are my abode, my only foothold.”
Despite the novel’s picturesque setting, cosy armchair travel this is not. The narrator laments a life misspent and displays a certain surliness — chiding a toddler, insulting a guest at a dinner party. Asked by her therapist to share something positive, the sole happy memory she can conjure is sitting in the sun on her balcony to “write down a sentence or two”. Exercise offers no reprieve from melancholy: she leaves the pool where she swims twice a week “saturated by a vague sense of dread”.
The book is so devoid of joy that I found myself startled by an exclamation mark, when friends wish the narrator “good luck!” as she agrees to take up a fellowship abroad.
Lahiri is not the first to seek refuge in a new language. What Nabokov called a “private tragedy”, Yiyun Li — who, like Joseph Conrad, has never written in her native tongue — calls a “private salvation”. Samuel Beckett, who opted to compose in French, spoke of his “need to be ill-equipped” and “write without style” — to throw off the shackles of Anglo-Irish influence and, some speculate, the shadow of James Joyce. For Chinua Achebe, the choice to write Things Fall Apart (1958) in English rather than his native Igbo was a political one, as English captured the legacy of colonialism.
In her memoir, Lahiri describes her exophonic impulse in romantic terms: Italian was “like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection.” English, by contrast, was like “a boyfriend I’d tired of, someone I’d left years earlier”.
Literary fiction can hold loneliness (as exemplified by the novels of Anita Brookner) and plotlessness (Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy springs to mind). Lahiri’s Italian, alas, is not yet capacious enough to carry off either. Unlike her works in English — which depict dislocation with an intimate precision — the prose in Whereabouts is spare but inexact, the translation intentionally retaining a rough edge. “I know that my writing in Italian is something premature, reckless, always approximate,” Lahiri admits in In Other Words. Like unsalted bread, “it works, but the usual flavour is missing”.
Committed to persevering in the project of writing with her non-dominant hand, Lahiri publishes her first book of poetry in Italy in June and a collection called Roman Stories is in the works. Her syntax has evolved since writing Whereabouts, she explained in The New Yorker, where an excerpt first appeared. She may still find her voice in her adopted tongue — but for this novel, her self-imposed exile limits rather than liberates.
Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99, 176 pages/Knopf, RRP$24, 157 pages
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