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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Book Review: ‘Whereabouts,’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

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WHEREABOUTS
By Jhumpa Lahiri

Reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel, her first written in Italian, feels like an impossible task because the work is pared down to its essence, and arrives like a holding space for work to come. After publishing the book in Italy in 2018 as “Dove Mi Trovo,” Lahiri translated it into English, choosing the title “Whereabouts.”

A slender novel, “Whereabouts” is composed of 46 chapters, or entries, sequenced over the course of a year. These are the work of an unnamed writer in her late 40s who teaches at a university. “In spring I suffer,” one entry begins, and another: “A bachelor friend of mine likes hosting dinners at his house.” Each reflection is place-stamped by its title: “At the Coffee Bar,” “In the Hotel,” “At My House,” “In the Shade,” “In My Head,” “At the Supermarket” and so on.

“Whereabouts” is like a photographer’s contact sheet. As our eyes move across the images, sensitive to each reframing, a loose narrative emerges of an Italian woman at a crossroads in her life. But narrative is not what this book is after. Each entry, most only a few pages long, stands on its own; any could be removed without leaving an absence. Or, as the writer puts it when discussing her therapist: “As if each session were the first and only time we met. Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter.”

[ Read our profile of Lahiri. ]

The entries sometimes sing and sometimes perplex. This is partly because although written by the same narrator, they seem to emerge from a person not fully realized. At times she seems Italian and at other times not; rooted yet adrift; untraveled yet well traveled; parochial yet cosmopolitan. Of course, the narrator may rightfully be all these things. Disjunctures — between fragmentation and novelization, between joyful solitude and frightened loneliness, between assertions of contentment and evidence of dissatisfaction — permeate every chapter.

The writer says, “I’ve never left this city,” yet even the people and places she knows well are described with an abstracted quality. The chapters detail encounters: We learn of a friend’s husband with whom she imagines a romantic entanglement; a lover who keeps pocket-dialing her; an ex-boyfriend of five years (“But he’s never amounted to much, he remains puerile and full of complaints, in spite of his middle-aged man’s body”); the therapist; a few friends, mostly interchangeable; a baptism and a conference, grudgingly attended. But other humans are like passing shadows. Unnamed, they become a kind of background, serving primarily as vehicles for the writer’s reflections.

Wryly she says, “Solitude: It’s become my trade.” This is a difficult novel because the pain of the narrator’s isolation feels extremely real. The book sheds dramatic structure, connective tissue and other characters, as if they were all part of a lifelong cage. In the brief, almost airy entries, where sentences are honed to minimalist beauty, the overriding sensation is of a shrinking world: a woman trying, before it is too late, to pull herself from a carapace.

In translating the novel’s Italian title, “Dove Mi Trovo” (“where I find myself” or “where I am”), Lahiri avoids the implied “myself” and focuses instead on the spatial: “Whereabouts.” It’s a beautiful translation, one that reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s question “Where are we when we think?” The most exciting moments of “Whereabouts” are when it becomes a novel of thinking, when it dives down into its sharp fragments, such as in this provocative line where the writer describes the experience of swimming: “Everything — my body, my heart, the universe — seems tolerable when I’m protected by water and nothing touches me. All I think about is the effort.”

Where the novel grows thin is when the “I” begins nearly every sentence; the more the “I” controls the language, the more the life of the mind seems to recede. Lahiri’s commitment — to write fiction in Italian, while also, in this novel, paring language down to a minimalist power — begins to create a generalized syntax, disconcertingly simplified. Her city in summer is described as wasting “away like an old woman who was once a stunning beauty”; a country home is an “area that’s resisted change, that remains unspoiled”; a visit to a nail salon is summed up as: “All the women come from the same country, and while they diligently see to our needs they talk continuously in their language.” It’s not that the descriptions are clumsy; rather, language glides along the surface of things. The polished words sometimes seem to lose contact with living existence, providing instead a skillful description of a two-dimensional world — a picture of a picture.

Late in the novel, the writer observes: “Because when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light. It makes no difference whether I’m under a clear blue sky or caught in the rain or swimming in the transparent sea in summer. … Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.”

Setting, the narrator concludes, is interchangeable; indeed, in this novel, place is decisively generic. Story is distilled to atmosphere, like a corner that implies a whole. The continuous surfaces of the novel are tantalizing but arrive at the surface of another beginning.

“Whereabouts” ends with the writer on a train, leaving her home to accept a fellowship in “a place I’ve never been before.” She is enamored of a group of other passengers — a family or maybe just friends — a “foreign brigade” basking in one another’s company, strangers to loneliness, practicing a new language.



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