In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri

Bloomsbury, £16.99

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In 2013 Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. At this point in her life, however, Lahiri had largely abandoned speaking, reading, writing and even thinking in English. In 2012 her obsession with Italian had become so all-consuming that she moved her family from Boston to Rome, forcing herself to inhabit the language. In Other Words is a series of reflections on Lahiri’s linguistic exile, written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein. It was Lahiri’s dedication to her adopted mother tongue which made her decide not to translate it herself. She did not want to risk rekindling her intimacy with English, but more than that, she knew she would betray her Italian, embellishing the translation with her writing of old.

What emerges from these short, meandering digressions is a lucid portrait of authorial rebirth. When Lahiri decides to stop reading English language novels she undergoes a radical disorientation. She must learn to read again. She struggles through the work of Alberto Moravia and the poetry of Quasimodo, but it pays off: “Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” She enters a transitional stage, stuck like the Roman Janus: “the ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings and endings”. A week after arriving in Rome she unexpectedly starts writing her diary in Italian. In doing so, she reduces her writing to a childlike state and, importantly, loses her authorial voice; she stops recognizing the person writing in the diary and gives up her ‘authority’ as a writer.

Her pursuit of Italian opens up fissures in her being, contradictions and irreconcilables, some of which were dormant in her psyche. The fragmented structure of Lahiri’s memoir mirrors her divided self. Although written in the present tense, the episodes vary in form: some are straightforward diaries of her life and some are stories that function as extended metaphors for her Italian exile. On occasion she turns to other authors to understand her new state of being. The most useful is Ovid, whose Metamorphosis offers Lahiri an understanding of transformation as both a liberation and an imprisonment. Daphne becomes a laurel tree in order to avoid Apollo’s romantic pursuits, but in the process is incarcerated, wrapped in bark. Lahiri sees English as something she has loved all her life but which “has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure…English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it”. Italian becomes a carapace that protects her from that burden.

Lahiri’s actual mother tongue, that spoken by her parents, is Bengali. It was her first language until the age of four, but “in a certain sense it died” at nursery, where English was taught. Lahiri speculates as to whether the divisions within herself come from a “lack of a language to identify with. As a girl in America, I tried to speak Bengali perfectly, without a foreign accent, to satisfy my parents, and above all to feel that I was completely their daughter. But it was impossible…I wanted to be considered an American, yet, despite the fact that I speak English perfectly, that was impossible too.” Italian allows Lahiri to lose her style and to live in a language that, for her, is emotionally neutral. Like Samuel Beckett, who “said that writing in French allowed him to write without style,” Lahiri relishes the chance to disappear, which means erasing herself from the written page. Her Italian is akin to “bread without salt”. Yet the impulse to find a voice is still there. Soon she yearns to inflect her sentences with character once again.

In Other Words contains some laborious sections. The account of Lahiri’s struggle with the imperfect tense is prosaic, both because the content is boring, and because she indulges in her own failure. There is nothing special about her inability to grasp the imperfect, a common problem for people learning English as well as Italian. Lahiri can also be trite, especially concerning the ‘power of art’, which is never as powerful as artists think it is. Nevertheless, she can produce elegance on the page – “a foreign language is a delicate, finicky muscle” – and her exploration of authorial style, of paramount importance to proper artists, is insightful. Moreover, Jhumpa Lahiri is a brave writer, not only for exiling herself but because many told her abandoning English was foolhardy, especially considering her success. In Other Words proves the naysayers wrong.