Let Jhumpa Lahiri tell you what this book is all about. “It’s a travel book, more interior, I would say, than geographic,” she writes in her Afterword. “It recounts an uprooting, a state of disorientation, a discovery. It recounts a journey that is at times exciting, at times exhausting. An absurd journey, given that the traveller never reaches her destination.”
The uprooting, disorientation and journey all have to do with language. Specifically, with Lahiri’s obsessive desire to master Italian well enough to be able to speak, read and write it to a high level of proficiency. It is a fascinating, arduous journey, frustrating and rewarding in equal parts. This book, written in Italian, is the result of that journey. It signifies less the arrival at a destination than a milestone on that demanding road.
Lahiri’s is an extremely ambitious undertaking. And she embarks on it to free herself of her past, to reclaim herself as a person and as a writer, to forge a new direction in her work and to withdraw from English – the language that has made her a world-famous writer, and with which she has a complex, fraught relationship.
Having been born to Bengali parents in London and spent most of her life in America, Lahiri has always felt a “disjunction” between herself and her mother tongue. English is the language she acquired when she went to school and began to read. And there was in her home a continual tussle between the two.
“Those two languages of mine didn’t get along. They were incompatible adversaries, intolerant of each other… For my family English represented a foreign culture that they didn’t want to give in to. Bengali represented the part of me that belonged to my parents, that didn’t belong to America…It was impossible to speak English without feeling detached from my parents, without an unsettling sense of separation.”
Having fallen in love with Italy when she first visited Florence on holiday in 1994, the Italian language appears to her as an escape from this conflict. It is something that she has chosen instead of it having chosen her – as Bengali did by dint of her birth; and English did by dint of her environment. It is something that she inhabits without any sense of guilt.
She learns Italian from private tutors while living in Brooklyn. But the experience seems incomplete. Then, after finishing her last novel, The Lowland, she gives up reading and writing in English, begins to read, with difficulty, exclusively in Italian, and finally moves with her family to Rome to immerse herself in Italian. Bit by bit, she begins to write in it: diary entries, sketches, stories. It is often a frustrating, self-flagellating exercise, but Lahiri is indomitable.
Italian offers her another, crucial sense of liberation. Having won the Pulitzer Prize with The Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection of stories (“a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake”), Lahiri felt that, as a writer, she was stifled with the pressure of expectation. Having become so celebrated so early on in her career, she missed the freedom of being able to write without the burden that great early success imposes on a writer. “All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible. But a year after my first book was published I lost my anonymity.”
This anonymity is what she wants to reclaim as a writer by writing in Italian. She wants to reinvent herself in her work, write without fear of failure, without the anxiety that huge success begets, with imperfection but a sense of childlike wonder and joy, fail while doing so, but not be haunted by it. She wants to learn to write anew. On the evidence of the two stories that figure in In Other Words, there does seem to be a change in direction: from an emphasis on verisimilitude towards abstraction.
In Other Words was published in bilingual editions in Britain and America, with pages of Italian and English text alongside each other. In India, it has come out only in English. Lahiri has chosen not to translate it herself, fearing that she would succumb to the temptation of prettifying the text, of ironing out its kinks, of imparting a gloss to its rawness. It has been translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker, and translator of the famous – and famously elusive – Elena Ferrante.
Even to a reader who cannot read Italian and encounters In Other Words only in its English translation, it becomes obvious that this is not Lahiri writing in English. The infelicities, repetitions, dilatoriness and instances of triteness that turn up here are impossible to imagine in Unaccustomed Earth or The Lowland.
Lahiri is all too aware of that. “I have an ambivalent relationship with this book, and probably always will,” she writes towards the end. “On the one hand, I am proud of it… On the other hand I fear that it’s a false book. I’m insecure about it, a little embarrassed…I’m afraid it’s frivolous, even presumptuous.” If this sounds contradictory, it is because this paradoxical impulse is at the heart of this story of linguistic exile. Lahiri is brave to lay herself bare the way she does.
At the same time, this is recognisably a work by Lahiri. The tropes of deracination, belonging, estrangement, identity and metamorphosis, which suffuse her earlier books, illuminate this memoir as well.
Lahiri says she has no idea if she will return to writing in English. Should she choose to write only in Italian from now on, it would be a loss for the world of contemporary English letters.
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