Saturday, February 20, 2016

Language Of The Heart

IN OTHER WORDS Jhumpa Lahiri

This review appeared in today's The Indian Express.

Language is a filter through which we view the world, and, on a trip to Florence in 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was captivated by a glimpse of one such view. The Italian language, she felt, was one “with which I have to have a relationship”. After studying it for close to 20 years, she moved to Rome with her family in 2012. Here, she wrote much of her new book, In Other Words: brief, linked essays, most of which first appeared in Internazionale. The themes of exile and alienation that animate her fiction are also present in this, her first work of non-fiction, marked by a guileless prose style and a disarming frankness in examining shifting identities and the need to write.

Writers such as Beckett, Nabokov and Conrad have written in languages other than their mother tongue; however, Beckett lived in France for years before writing in French, Nabokov learned English as a child, and Conrad spent a long time absorbing English while at sea. In contrast, Lahiri writes, “what I’m doing – daring to write in Italian after living in Italy for barely a year – is different, out of the ordinary, and so I feel an even more intense solitude”.

An over-abundance of metaphors is one of the ways in which she conveys her experience of learning Italian. The comparison with a love affair is an obvious one, but that apart, she speaks of climbing a mountain, wading into a lake, filling a basket, trying on an unfamiliar sweater, crossing a fragile bridge, and navigating a strange city. Strikingly, “compared with [my newborn] Italian, my English is like a hairy, smelly teenager”.

When it comes to her newly-minted style and its self-perceived shortcomings, “one could say that my writing in Italian is a type of unsalted bread”. “It works,” she continues, “but the usual flavour is missing. On the other hand, I think it does have a style or at least a character”. It does: there’s an affecting transparency to these sentences, rendered into English by Ann Goldstein.

The first story that Lahiri wrote in Italian (included here, along with another) begins with the sentence: “There was a woman…who wanted to be another person”. This, as she points out, with reference to her Indian parents and American upbringing, is no co-incidence. “I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.” Writing in Italian, then, becomes a way to chart an independent course for “my divided identity”; a means to bypass her “two sides, neither well defined”. Evidently, such reflections also serve to illumine the roots of her novels and short stories.

She’s equally candid about what made her take to writing in the first place. It was “to tolerate myself [and] get closer to everything that is outside of me…Writing is my only way of absorbing and organising life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much”. This, come to think of it, is a more impassioned way of rendering Graham Greene’s statement that he wrote out of “a desire to reduce a chaos of experience into some sort of order, and a hungry curiosity”.

In Other Words comes across foremost as an act of self-exploration by a writer without a specific homeland, a search for a location triangulated by three languages. In Italian, she has “the freedom to be imperfect”, and this limitation of words and life, along with strategies to overcome them, are what she assiduously explores. Combining simplicity without shallowness and sensitivity without self-indulgence, it is written in the language of the heart.