In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf 2016)
Jhumpa Lahiri begins her memoir of two years in Italy with a water metaphor. Rather than thirst in Rome’s heat or a watery rebirth, the imagery of swimming around a lake seduced me. So starts Lahiri’s story of writing in a language neither her parents’ Bengali nor the English she learned easily in pre-school in the U.S. While English is the language in which she writes most proficiently, deftly carving her Pulitzer-prize-winning fiction, Lahiri chose to write this first-person account of living abroad in Italian.
. . . no gelato, nary a glass of wine
Likely my love of swimming—especially in natural mountain lakes like the one she describes in her opening—as well as my love of Italian, drew me in to Lahiri’s tale. But the story itself kept me reading. Rather than the typical travel or expatriate narrative of recent years (think Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun), Lahiri’s journey is not one of an American consuming food, drink and culture. There is no gelato, nary a glass of wine. Her memoir focuses instead on estrangement. From neither patria nor spiritual past, the estrangement is that caused by language itself—both tool and medium on which a writer’s life depends.
. . . swimming across rather than around the edges
Lahiri acknowledges that she gave herself this challenge in part because of what others have also articulated—a love of the musical sound, rhythms and history of Italian. Recalling words ricocheting from Florence’s stone streets and walls one chilly December when she was an undergraduate, she also explains her attempts to learn the language throughout years of personal study and private lessons with native speakers. Realizing that the means to achieving fluency consists only in living in a place where a person is surrounded by the language–or swimming across rather than around the edges–like that watery fluid of the dark lake with which In Other Words opens, she moved with her husband and children to Rome.
The two years’ experiment on Italian soil sets the stage for the memoir, but time does not control the narrative. Rather, Lahiri shapes her work thematically, using metaphors and chapter titles—walls, bridges, and the like—to emphasize her points. Often poignant, without Bill Bryson’s humor, In Other Words appeals to any who savor language and what it means to struggle with learning and communicating in another medium.
Yet the book is much more than that. It is also about writing, and the challenges writers face as they attempt to select words to express themselves.
. . . the book is about being Other
Most importantly, the book is about being Other. My favorite scene in Lahiri’s story is one in which she recounts an encounter with a female sales clerk in Salerno. Following a detailed exchange over types, colors and sizes of pants to purchase for Lahiri’s two children, the clerk, seeing her as Other, asks where she is from. But the clerk treats Lahiri’s husband, who is called “Alberto” and often passes for Italian due to his looks, differently. Although he responds only in simple, short phrases to his wife’s questions, the clerk says he speaks Italian very well. A first read of the passage, for any females who have been in Italy, smacks of gender hierarchy–a preference for males over females. Yet, as Lahiri renders it, it’s about Other appearances. While Alberto looks Italian, she looks neither American nor Italian. So it goes with her appearance as with her language. She is “foreign.”
To emphasize this tale of estrangement and otherness and the ever-present gap in her own skills, Lahiri insisted upon a translation into English by someone other than herself. The result is English translated by Ann Goldstein. (Well-known as New Yorker contributing author, Goldstein is also translator of the Elena Ferrante novels.) Here English and Italian appear together as parallel texts within one volume, contributing to the magic of In Other Words. If there are any drawbacks to Lahiri’s work, they are few. There is the usual self-indulgence of memoir writing. This book is all about her—it lacks the rich characters and relationships of her fiction. And, understandably, the prose is not as poetic. Both these shortcomings, however, seem to be part of Lahiri’s point—they emphasize the isolation she seeks to convey and the limitations of connecting through language. Lahiri’s linguistic experiment is worth the read.