'Whereabouts' by Jhumpa Lahiri: Where she finds herself
Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel 'Whereabouts', translated by her from Italian, is a sublime meditation on place, language and identity
Towards the end of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful new novel, Whereabouts, the unnamed narrator, living in an unnamed city in Italy, finds herself in a peculiar double bind. On her last day in her hometown, before she leaves for a long fellowship in a place “across the border”, she stumbles upon an uncanny sight. Walking down the familiar streets throbbing with life, she notices a woman dressed exactly like her, striding on her own towards an unknown destination. Suddenly, confronted by this image of her identical double, the narrator has an epiphany. “I’m me and someone else,” she realises, “that I’m leaving and also staying.”
Doubleness is a metaphor that runs through the letter and spirit of Whereabouts. Originally written in Italian, it was first published in 2018 as Dove Mi Trovo (literally, “where I find myself”). Translated by Lahiri herself, this is her first novel in Italian (her first book in Italian, In Other Words, was rendered into English by Ann Goldstein in 2016). In a sense, therefore, Whereabouts has a double life of its own, existing as two distinct entities for Italian and English readers, featuring a narrator whose predicament is also a reflection of Lahiri’s own, inhabiting multiple identities, languages, cultures and nations.
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At 46, the narrator is single, or rather solo by choice, an academic, who cultivates solitude. “It’s becoming my trade,” she says at one point, reminding us of some of Elena Ferrante’s characters. Emotionally adrift and a flâneuse by temperament, she is rooted to her long-formed habits of living, being and thinking. The routine of buying the same sandwich from the same bistro, a weekly visit to her favourite stationery store, a coffee with a friend or the odd dinner party—though even among loving company, she retains her autonomy, gently but firmly protective of a boundary that no one can cross. With the men in her life too—exes or married friends for whom she occasionally feels a frisson—she is respectfully apart, holding herself at a distance even when there’s warmth and a smouldering affection.
But this outward distance, at times bordering on coldness, is belied by her rich inner life. It restlessly veers among places and timelines. True to its title, Whereabouts unfolds in brief bursts of episodes at the many sites the narrator finds herself in. You could almost envision the chapter headings (“On The Sidewalk”, “On The Street”, “In The Office”, “At The Trattoria”, and so on) as tiny red pins with which locations are marked by GPRS. The reader moves with her, too, occasionally pausing in sections titled “In My Head”, where we get a glimpse of the young person she once was and the circumstances that have made her the woman she is, her inner demons and innate unease with the world.
Aside from the periodic references to her inadequate parents (a mother whose intensity could push her frequently into fits of rage and a father whose cruelty manifested itself through his brazen disinterest in the life of his family), the narrator acts like a camera, documenting the quirky and ordinary details of life (like an edgier version of Christopher Isherwood’s narrator in Goodbye To Berlin), observing her reaction to people and places with a keenness that gives her the raw material for writing. Indeed, in parts, Whereabouts reads like a lesson in paying attention—to notice the subtle shifts inside and outside of us, to listen closely to words and the meanings they convey.
Yet, for all the pleasures it takes in lingering on the world of circumstances, in unpeeling the layers contained in portmanteau coinages like portagioie (in Italian, it could refer to a jewellery box and also “a container of joy”, as Lahiri points out in a note), Whereabouts also tells a story of gradual transformation. From regretting her “squandered youth, the absence of rebellion” and the bitter memories of her life with her parents “still nipping at my heels”, the narrator begins to find herself in a new state of being, one of adventure and possibilities, as she begins to voyage into the unknown. This is analogous to the experience Lahiri herself has spoken of in several interviews, explaining her love for the Italian language and culture, the ways in which both have freed her from burdens of identity, as an individual and a writer.
In a 2017 interview with the online literary portal Lit Hub, Lahiri spoke of the classical Latin poet Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses as being “fundamental” to her life as a writer. “To translate, too, is a kind of metamorphosis,” she explained. In her meticulous translation of her own novel, Lahiri too seems to have discovered not only a brave new world in a language of her own, but also a transformation of feelings she hadn’t quite reckoned with in her English writing so far.
Whereabouts will be published on 26 April.
FIRST PUBLISHED25.04.2021 | 09:00 AM IST