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Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest is no Roman holiday

Jhumpa Lahiri reckons with her heritage in her new book, ‘Roman Stories’, where characters share their unease about present-day Rome

Jhumpa Lahiri grapples with the experience of uprootedness in ‘Roman Stories’.
Jhumpa Lahiri grapples with the experience of uprootedness in ‘Roman Stories’. (iStockphoto)

Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, Roman Stories, is prefaced by two epigraphs, from Livy and Ovid, the great chroniclers of ancient Rome, respectively. While the lines from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, his magisterial history of Rome, capture the restless spirit of the city, “growing this way and that”, the quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses alludes to the “gaping gates of Janus” being “still unblocked”. These gates, as antiquity records, were opened when Rome was at war, and closed during times of peace.

In Lahiri’s stories, written in Italian and translated into English by her, along with Todd Portnowitz, we witness contemporary Rome as a fast-expanding metropolis, engaged in a civil war of sorts. Lahiri’s vignettes are beautifully concise, observed with tender affection, but also with a sense of liminal dread. Characters step in and out of the pages, nebulously linked, never explicitly named, or placed, except through fleeting references to their habits, clothes, histories and appearances. Some are identified by generic markers—“The Mother”, “The Widow”, “The Expat Wife”, “The Girl”, “The Brothers”, “The Screenwriter”—though never dehumanised. Lahiri conjures up their private worlds, hopes, dreams and heartbreaks with clinical precision. These sketches feel like a nod to Italo Calvino, a master of modern Italian fiction, whom Lahiri has translated into English.

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But literary influences and homage apart, Lahiri’s Roman Stories are very much her own. Her characters talk to each other, to exchange information about their past, share their unease with the present state of Rome, infiltrated by hordes of refugees. Roman Stories is also a deeply personal internal dialogue for Lahiri, a reckoning with her own past and present, especially with her complicated heritage—born to Bengali parents in London, raised in the US and now partly settled in Rome, growing up speaking Bengali, thinking and writing in English, making it the source code of her literary career, and now, for over a decade, making yet another “foreign” language (Italian) the anchor of her truths and experiences.

Unsurprisingly, the word “foreign”, and its cognates, are strewn across the pages of Roman Stories. In every story, a foreigner, who is either a refugee, an expat or an immigrant, encounters Rome and modern-day Romans in a multitude of moods—impatient and menacing, bristling with casual racism, violent, insulting.

In the opening story, The Boundary, a 15-year-old girl observes the lives and rituals of guests who rent her father’s country house with a quiet, but palpable, sense of alienation. It is as though a glass wall separates her from the citizens of her adopted country, at once clearly visible to her, but always outside her reach. If you switched the context, she could easily fit into the universe of The Interpreter Of Maladies, Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning debut book.

As with her books in English, Lahiri grapples with the experience of uprootedness in Roman Stories, looking closely at the lives of those who move, by choice or circumstance, to countries and cultures not their own. At its most visceral, migration brings in its wake poverty, squalour, trauma. The “veiled” wife in Well-Lit House is besieged by waves of panic as she is harangued by the “raven women” who are her neighbours. In The Reentry, a scholar visiting Rome, the city she has made the centre of her life’s work, is jilted by a little girl in a trattoria, who is quietly hostile to her, knowing she doesn’t belong. Her feeling of being an intruder, of someone passing through, is exacerbated by the girl’s grandmother, the owner of the trattoria, who refers to her as “la moretta”. The semantics of this word, which is deliberately left untranslated, is ambiguous. La moretta, as the perplexed scholar’s lunch companion consoles her, is an off-hand remark, used to refer to any woman with dark hair. But to the recipient of this epithet, it is a barb as subtle, and painful, as a paper cut.

The dislocation felt by Lahiri’s protagonists in Roman Stories isn’t only geographical or cultural. The writer-narrator of P’s Parties, for instance, is distraught at his attraction to a foreign woman, whose nomadic presence in Rome, the inaccessible novelty of her appeal, feel like a threat to his orderly, unchanging routine. Unlike the woman transplanted from her home turf, the only life he has ever known has had a fixed cadence. Faced with the pull of the unknown, he can process his unsettlement only through words, by turning it into a piece of fiction, and giving it a life outside his own head.

This delicate transaction between fiction and fantasy, the lengthening shadow between image and reality, plays out at its finest in the final, winding story, Dante Alighieri. A tale of crossed paths and missed chances, it is also a meditation on the role of language in structuring our experiences. The poet who lends his name to the title of the story, for instance, means different things to different people: a weird foreign name to the protagonist’s father, an emblem of worshipful love for her young admirer and, to her, a key that unlocks a door to a new life.

Early on in this story, the protagonist’s admirer shows her a line from “the diary of a famous author” to salute a brave and difficult choice she makes: “Every desire becomes a decision.” This statement could just as well illuminate Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian, mingling with her desire to find a home and identity in a language that is not hers. “I translate, therefore I am,” as Lahiri wrote in an earlier collection of essays, Translating Myself And Others. “I have been thinking about translation for my entire conscious life.” In Roman Stories, she reaffirms her commitment to this lifelong project, acknowledging its rich returns as well as the inevitable sorrow that comes from living in the interstices of multiple languages.

In a masterful essay in Translating Myself And Others, titled Why Italian?, Lahiri captures the melancholy heaviness of being un-homed by language with razor-sharp acuity. “Writing in another language reactivates the grief of being between two worlds,” she writes, “of being on the outside. Of being alone and excluded.” Yet this grief is an immense privilege, too, rich, empowering, one that forces a multilingual writer to open her eyes to realities that are passed over by those jaded by a single language, a singular way of looking at the world.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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