literary journalism

Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Whereabouts’

The title of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize–winning debut short-story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), refers to a character who translates ailments for a doctor. Lahiri continued to plumb the pain of first- and second-generation Bengali immigrants in the works that followed: The Namesake (2003), Unaccustomed Earth (2008) and The Lowland (2013), the latter of which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award.

With Whereabouts, first published in Italy as Dove mi trovo in 2018, Lahiri takes a sharp turn in her fiction, deliberately tying her hands behind her back by writing in Italian, which she learned as an adult. As she describes in her 2016 memoir In Other Words, also written in Italian, she moved her family to Rome for three years to pursue her passion for the language. Fearful of tinkering too much with the text, she passed the translation of In Other Words into English to Ann Goldstein, the brilliant translator of authors including Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. [Although another translator was initially engaged] for Whereabouts, Lahiri decided to give it a whirl herself.

The book follows an unnamed narrator in her mid-40s in an unnamed Italian city [(although its sampietrini cobblestones suggest Rome)]. It’s told in vignettes in various locations — “at the trattoria”, “in the piazza”, “at the beautician” — and, most often, “in my head”. The narrator is ambivalent about her work as a writing professor: “I’m here to earn a living, my heart’s not in it.” Single and childless, she lives alone in a spartan flat. She carries a dimly lit torch for a friend’s husband but is aware that an affair would be “reckless, also pointless”. The relationship with her mother, a “disdainful” widow, is strained. “Solitude: it’s become my trade,” the narrator reflects.

Aloneness pushes her into the arms of the city, where she is sustained by her surroundings and casual acquaintance, in the grand tradition of the flâneur. As Lauren Elkin explored in Flâneuse (2016), it’s a genre historically dominated by men, due to the risks — both to life and reputation — that have often deterred ambling women…

Read the full review online in the Financial Times

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