Book review: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words is a personal journey into Italian
In Other Words
About a third of the way through Jhumpa Lahiri’s book there is a short story titled The Exchange printed in full – the first short story Lahiri wrote in Italian – that begins with the line, “There was a woman … who wanted to be another person.” Momentarily swapping her writer’s hat for that of a critic, towards the end of the book, as she looks back over the linguistic journey of the previous pages, Lahiri declares that we can and should read much into this particular opening line since its meaning goes far beyond the accidental: “All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin. It was the void that distressed me, that I was fleeing. That’s why I was never happy with myself. Change seemed the only solution. Writing, I discovered a way of hiding in my characters, of escaping myself. Of undergoing one mutation after another.”
Lahiri is an American writer. She is the author of two short story collections – her debut, Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – and two novels – the most recent, The Lowland, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award for Fiction and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Her parents are Indian; they emigrated from Calcutta to the East Coast, where she was brought up. She spoke Bengali at home with them as a child, not encountering English until she went to school at the age of four, thus she has always been somewhat divided between two cultures, two languages and two identities.
Early on in In Other Words she describes this split not as a cumulative doubling-up, but rather as a form of negation, an overall lack: “I don’t have a country, a specific culture.” The two languages are at continual war with each other inside her: “For my family, English represented a foreign culture that they didn’t want me to give in to. Bengali represented the part of me that belonged to my parents, that didn’t belong to America.”
Bengali might be her mother tongue, but it’s her “stepmother”, English, with whom she has the closest relationship. English is the language she’s lived with in complete fluency for the longest; and, more importantly, it’s the language she writes in.
Until now, that is. In Other Words is the first book Lahiri’s written in Italian. Originally published in Italy last year under the title In altre parole, it’s now been translated into English by Ann Goldstein (of Elena Ferrante’s English translations fame) and it is the story of Lahiri’s obsession with Italian.
Lahiri first visited Italy more than 20 years ago, back when she was still at university, studying Renaissance architecture in Boston. She and her sister took a trip to Florence, a present to themselves. Obviously much of the initial lure was the beauty of the architecture – the buildings, the palazzi, the churches – but Lahiri quickly discovers that “from the start, my relationship with Italy is as auditory as it is visual”.
She listens to the language being spoken all around her and is captivated: “I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment. A closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.”
She returns to America, but some part of her heart remains behind in Europe. She writes her doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced 17th-century English playwrights; this gives her an excuse to study Italian. She takes lessons. She makes further trips to Italy. Years pass, but the mastery she longs for continues to elude her. Then, in 2012, she takes a bold step. She decides to move to Rome.
It wouldn’t be crazy to assume that an experience of such magnitude would warrant writing up along the lines of a more classic, straightforward memoir all of its own. But although In Other Words “originated” in the fragmented notes – in Italian – that Lahiri began making when she arrived in Rome, these weren’t descriptions of her daily life or first impressions of her new city (though admittedly she was compiling these elsewhere, in a separate notebook), instead they recounted “only the emotions inspired by the linguistic drive”.
As such, In Other Words is an account of Lahiri’s relationship with language: predominantly Italian, but also that of English and Bengali too.
As Lahiri herself admits in the afterword, what she’s written is in many ways an ambivalent book, something that also characterises her own feelings towards the finished work. It is the most “autobiographical” of her works, but at the same time the most “abstract” – and she is both proud of its sincerity and honesty, but insecure and a little embarrassed about its potential “frivolity”.
Her anxieties, however, are completely unfounded. True, it’s a slight and in many ways unprecedented text – it provides the reader with so little in the way of traditional memoir markers, the only sense of Lahiri and her family’s life in Rome is a piecemeal accumulation of occasional vignettes of experience: finding themselves locked out of their apartment building during their first weekend in the city, or an encounter between Lahiri, her husband and a saleswoman in a shop selling children’s clothes – but it possesses near alchemical powers, as out of these fragments appears a deeply intimate portrait of an author laying bare her soul.
This is undoubtedly due in large part to the particulars of how she perceives her relationship with the Italian language. The book has the intimacy of a love story: her initial passion carrying with it connotations of an illicit and all-consuming affair, then, after this first flush of infatuation, a deeper, more fundamental bond kicks in, one in which she likens herself to a mother protecting a beloved newborn.
Growth, of course, is key. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the earlier more simplistic, staccatoesque sentences of the opening chapters become more complex, clause-heavy and self-assured as Lahiri’s mastery evolves. The very syntax one is reading attests to the struggle it’s describing: Lahiri feeling like “an intruder, an impostor”; lacking authority, not simply that exerted without second thought via a mother tongue, but that she’s exhibited as a prize-winning author.
It’s not a journey that’s complete, nor, perhaps will it ever be, since however competent Lahiri becomes, she acknowledges that she’ll always lack that fundamental connection between self and language that a native speaker possesses: “my writing in Italian is a type of unsalted bread,” she explains. “It works, but the usual flavour is missing.” True, perhaps, but the simplistic beauty of this metaphor suggests she might already be more accomplished than she realises.
This is a book during the reading of which we’re encouraged to pay close attention to the text on the page.
Unlike most translations, which exist unaccompanied by the original, here Lahiri’s Italian is presented alongside the English, thus, even if the reader has no understanding of Italian, a quick glance from one page to its opposite is enough to glean a basic feel for the language, for the relationship between it and English, and, most impressively, for Lahiri’s own achievement.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.