Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book, In Other Words, is the first of its kind in two respects: it’s the first of Lahiri’s non-fiction books, and it’s the first full-length work that she’s written entirely in Italian. Not being a native Italian reader myself, I had to contend with the side-by-side translation supplied by Ann Goldstein, best known for reppin’ Elena Ferrante and the Neapolitan Quartet.
That being said, I had to keep reminding myself to take the text accessible to me with a grain of salt. One of the first premises we learn about translation is that something gets lost. Though her stories are often insightful and severe, Lahiri’s prose usually presents itself unembellished to narrate plain fact. I had to remind myself that whatever words Goldstein used may not necessarily be the ones that Lahiri worked to discover. This bears stressing because from afar, it seems as if the Italian text is the whole point of her project. I may not read or speak Italian, but I kept thinking that something was lost to me, that I had to revisit the book once I held that key to get a fuller sense of appreciation for the book, which may not inherently be the book’s fault.
Despite this gap between the English reader and the work, there’s a lot to indicate that the book is still trademark Lahiri. No longer hiding behind the curtain of allegory, Lahiri reveals the day-to-day workings of her mind over several years. Secondary characters make minimal appearances and never overstay their welcome; we become acquainted in passing with Lahiri’s sister, her husband, and her first Italian teacher, but otherwise we come face-to-face with the author in her most introspective work yet. She talks primarily about the relation between language and identity, the former comprising the material of her craft and life’s work and the latter remaining continually uncertain.
In Other Words is most strongly Lahiri’s search for a self that is untethered to any cultural roots, be they Indian or American, but tied to her innermost impulses and most confident choices. It’s a theme that resonates so well with the interior alienations that made the Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies so beloved, that one may find that Lahiri has not opted to vanish from the English language after all. She has simply chosen to reveal herself in a state that most of her best-loved characters are captured in the process of entering—a state of self-discovery.
In a recent conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber, Jhumpa Lahiri recalled Cicero, saying: “It is the language of the other that can restore to us what is missing.” Perhaps this is the simplest way of describing what In Other Words is really about, and what it achieves. The gap between the work and me no longer seems impassable, now that I find myself being invited by one who has managed to tread carefully over the invisible.
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Mio is a Searcher. He may be close to finding what he’s looking for.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]