Friday, May 7, 2021

Jhumpa Lahiri’s New Novel Parse a Seeking Life Down to Its Essence

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel, It was first written in Italian, Feels like an impossible task because the work is separated from its essence, and comes as a holding place for the work to come. After publishing the book in Italy in 2018 as “Pigeon Mi Trovo”, Lahiri translated it into English, titled “Whereabouts”.

A thin novel, “Whereabouts” is made up of 46 chapters or entries sorted over the course of a year. He works as an anonymous writer in the late 40s who teaches at a university. “Spring makes me ache,” one admits, and another: “A bachelor friend of mine likes to host dinner at her house.” Each reflection is ranked by its title: “in the coffee bar,” “in the hotel,” “in my house,” “in the shade,” “in my head,” “in the supermarket,” and so on.

“Whereabouts” is like a photographer’s contact sheet. As our eyes cross images, sensitive to each reframing, a loose narrative of an Italian woman emerges at a crossroads in her life. But the story is not what this book is after all. Each entry is mostly just a few pages long; Any absences can be removed without leaving. Or, as the author says when discussing with his doctor: “Like every session was the first and only time we met. Each season was like the beginning of a novel abandoned after the first chapter. “

[ Read our profile of Lahiri. ]

The entries sometimes sing and sometimes obscure. This is partly because although the same narrator has written, they begin to emerge from a person who has not been fully realized. At times she looks Italian and at other times not; Yet uplifting inherent; Unpublished yet well traveled; Parochial yet metropolitan. Of course, the narrator can possess all these things. Disintegration – between fragmentation and newness, between joyful solitude and fearful isolation, amidst a sense of contentment and evidence of dissatisfaction – enlighten every chapter.

“I have never left this city,” says the author, yet the people and places she knows well are described with an abstract quality. The chapter deals in detail: We learn from the husband of a friend, with whom she imagines a romantic entanglement; A lover who dials him; A five-year-old ex-boyfriend (“but he never amounted to a lot of money, he is full of grievances and grievances despite the body of his middle aged man”); Doctor; Some friends, mostly interchangeable; Baptism and a conference, solemnly attended. But other humans are like shadows crossing. They become a type of backdrop, serving primarily as vehicles for the author’s reflections.

Wryly she says, “Solitude: This has become my business.” It is a difficult novel because the pain of the narrator’s isolation feels so real. The book sheds dramatic structure, connective tissue, and other characters, as if they were all part of a lifelong cage. In brief, almost airy entries, where the sentences are revered for minimal beauty, the hyper-sensitive sensation is that of the shrinking world: a woman trying, before she is too late, to drag herself from a carpet for.

In translating the novel’s Italian title, “pigeon mi trovo” (“where I find myself” or “where I am”), Lahiri avoids the implicit “himself” and focuses on the spatial: “where. ” This is a beautiful translation, reminding us of Hannah Ardert’s question “Where are we when we think?” The most exciting moments of “whereabouts” occur when it becomes a novel of thinking, when it dives into its sharp pieces, as in this provocative line where the author describes the experience of swimming: “Everything – My body, my heart, the universe – I feel tolerant when I’m protected by water and nothing touches me. I think it’s all effort. “

When the novel is thin, when “I” begins almost every sentence; The more the “I” controls the language, the more the life of the mind begins again. Lahiri’s commitment – to writing fiction in Italian, while in this novel, restricting language to minimal power – begins to create a generalized syntax, disconformally simplifying. In summer her city is described as a waste “far away like an old woman who was once a stunning beauty”; A country house is an “area opposed to change, which remains unaffected”; A visit to a nail salon is expressed as: “All women come from the same country, and when they speak diligently in their own language diligently for our needs.” It is not that the descriptions are clumsy; Rather, language glides on the surface of things. Polished words sometimes seem to lose contact with living existence, instead being a masterful description of the two-dimensional world – a picture of a picture.

Late in the novel, the author observes: “Because when everything is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: space, walls, lights.” It does not matter whether I am under blue sky or caught in the rain or swimming in the transparent sea in summer. … Wandered, lost, at sea, at odds, wandering, wandering, panicked, confused, uprooted. I relate to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothills. “

The setting, the narrative finale, is interchangeable; In fact, in this novel, the place is decisively generic. The story is distilled to the atmosphere, like a corner meaning a whole. The continuous surfaces of the novel are tantalizing but arrive at the surface of another beginning.

“Whereabouts” ends with the writer in a train, who leaves his home to accept a fellowship as “a place never before.” She is a stranger to each other in groups of other travelers – a family or perhaps just friends – from an “alien brigade”, practicing a new language for loneliness.

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