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Why Jhumpa Lahiri begins her new novel with a hat tip to death

Whereabouts: A Novel', an audacious experiment in language and tone, published in Italian in 2018 as 'Dove Mi Trovo' and translated now into English by Lahiri, maps the course of solitude over a year

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti |
April 25, 2021 6:30:54 am
Reading Whereabouts in the middle of a pandemic which has forced us to acknowledge the paradox of our loneliness makes Lahiri’s book a work of urgency, a literary self-help companion even.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s slim new novel, Whereabouts, written in Italian and translated into English by the author herself, begins with a hat tip to death. On the sidewalk along a familiar route stands a plaque commemorating a stranger, gone two days after his birthday. The note on the memorial plaque is handwritten by the mother of the man who died early, at merely 44. It reads: “I would like to personally thank those who dedicate a few minutes of their time to my son’s memory, but if that’s not possible, I thank you anyway, from the bottom of my heart…” Lahiri’s unnamed protagonist, a woman a little over 45 years, mulls over the accidents that could have cut the man’s life short. “Thinking of the mother just as much as the son, I keep walking, slightly less alive.”

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In this never-ending season of death and disease, Lahiri’s opening chapter sets the tone for what is to come: a rumination on the weight of choices on a future distinct from the one envisaged, the shadow of death that contours lives once they are past youth, and, above all, what it means to be a woman — solitary, middle-aged and fascinated and burdened in equal measure by solitude.

Whereabouts, Lahiri’s first novel since The Lowland (2013), was published in Italian in 2018 as Dove Mi Trovo, and will be out in English this week. More than a story propelled by a plot, this novel comes to the reader as a mise en scène — a register of emotions that certain places evoke in the protagonist, who lives by herself in an unnamed Italian city that could well be Rome, a place where Lahiri herself spent several years pursuing her love of, and interest in, the Italian language. Narrated in short episodic chapters titled, quite simply as, “In the office”, “At the museum”, or, most aptly, “In my head”, Whereabouts oscillates between belonging and unbelonging, familiar themes in the Pulitzer-winning writer’s work, but it also marks the arc of a breathtaking literary ambition: to live between languages and worlds, and to shape a tongue that is distinctly her own. In prose that has been chiselled down to perfection, Lahiri crafts a narrative voice shorn of cultural baggage, and a character who owes no debt to the women who have appeared before in Lahiri’s previous two novels — Ashima, the luminescent protagonist of The Namesake (2003), or Gauri in The Lowland.

In the essay “The Metamorphosis” from her 2015 collection, In Other Words, the translation of her first work in Italian in which she examines her life as a linguistic outlier, Lahiri wrote, “The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch, of the entire universe and all it contains, is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep, without which we would stand still. The moments of transitions in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments we tend to remember. They give a structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.”

If language has been her touchstone, in Whereabouts, over the course of a year, Lahiri’s protagonist recognises and reacts to these moments of alchemy in her life. Despite her insularity, she is deeply interested in people, not just friends and family or romantic partners, past and potential, but also strangers, whose actions arouse in her a preternatural understanding of the work of time in one’s life. Listening to a teenaged acquaintance, she’s struck by her poise and her “determination to make a life for herself here”. She thinks back to her own teenage life —“As she tells me about the boys that want to date her, amusing stories that make us both laugh, I can’t manage to erase a sense of ineptitude. I feel sad as I laugh; I didn’t know love at her age.” In another instance, waiting at a doctor’s chamber, she is drawn to the only other patient waiting alongside, a woman much older to her. As they sit in silence, she thinks, “No one keeps this woman company: no caregiver, no friend, no husband. And I bet she knows that in twenty years, when I happen to be in a waiting room like this one for some reason or other, I won’t have anyone sitting beside me, either.”

Here, unlike in any of her work before, Lahiri’s pursuit of interiority wears the quiet confidence of someone who recognises flux for what it is — a constant search for equilibrium, a realignment of ambitions with reality, a deepening of an idiosyncrasy. In the chapter “In My Head”, her character confesses: “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.” Lahiri wrote the novel much before the pandemic, and, the hyperawareness of the self could easily have become self-indulgent. Instead, it appears audacious — despite the sprawl and depth of short stories by writers such as Alice Munro, the representation of female characters examining their loneliness and the banality of middle age is not commonplace in fiction, even if writers from Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary, published posthumously by her husband in 1953) to American poet May Sarton (Journal of a Solitude, 1973) to, more recently, Olivia Laing (The Lonely City, 2016) have mapped it in telling works of non-fiction.

Reading Whereabouts in the middle of a pandemic which has forced us to acknowledge the paradox of our loneliness makes Lahiri’s book a work of urgency, a literary self-help companion even. The trepidation and the lack of joy among those still untouched by the pandemic have been labelled as “languishing” by The New York Times. Struggling with faltering focus, trying to make sense of a ceaseless stream of bad news, Lahiri’s spare, evocative prose and the incredible detailing of the protagonist’s observation appears like a cornucopia — an opportunity to take stock of this moment of change, to acknowledge how the arc of our social interactions allows us to find or lose ourselves.

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