Linguists tell us that language isn’t learned, it grows naturally, like our bodies. Intrinsic and instinctive, language is an organ – the heart, as it were, of our consciousness. To swap one’s native language for a new one seems therefore, if not inconceivable, certainly as difficult and risky an ordeal as a heart transplant.
Incredibly, some writers do just that. It’s altogether different from a painter, say, swapping watercolours for acrylics. Native speech is literally moulded into the brain; relinquishing it for literary purposes seems uniquely daring. Writers who work in an acquired tongue fascinate us. But it’s always the same clique of grands hommes who spring to mind: Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett. Never Chinua Achebe, never RK Narayan – the black or Asian writer is simply expected to adopt English.
It’s against this background that the Bengali-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri has renounced the language in which her silky-smooth sentences once won a Pulitzer prize. Her new novel, Whereabouts, was composed in Italian, like the essays comprising her last book, In Other Words. It has been translated into English by the author herself; indeed, the only English sentences Lahiri now writes are translated from Italian.
This intriguing novel portrays the lonely existence, in an unnamed place, of an unnamed narrator. We know she’s a woman and, in a rare concession to biographical detail, a university teacher, in her mid-40s. She has virtually no family, no relationship, just friends, who are also nameless and thinly characterised, with an element of projection: a married neighbour is, to her mind, ready to have an affair with her, while a female friend must, she imagines, be bored of marriage.
Whereabouts is a novel in vignettes, each chapter a postcard from an everyday landmark – “In the Bookstore”, “At the Beautician”, etc – typically experienced alone, although sometimes highlighting the consolation of strangers. “In the Hotel” shows the narrator and a male guest silently synchronising their daily walks to the lift, a “tacit bond” putting her “obscurely at peace with the world”. These mental dispatches are tantamount to a primer in the art of solitude, which, Lahiri rightly observes, “requires a certain discipline”.
Though plotless, the novel remains compelling, as a peephole into a mind sequestered from others. What lies behind the narrator’s unyielding solitude (“a condition I try to perfect”) remains obscure. Portraying such a character, mysteriously adrift in an urban landscape, Whereabouts feels like a movie by Michelangelo Antonioni, and there’s something cinematic about the way the novel progresses spatially, each chapter exhibiting a new place, plotted out as a map rather than a timeline.
The sense of place here departs radically from Lahiri’s writings in English, where the settings (sweltering Calcutta, bookish Boston, a bored housewife’s Rhode Island) retain their distinctive character. Whereabouts, true to the equivocation about place buried in its title, could be unfolding anywhere. The narrator, we presume, lives in Italy – there are pizzas and piazzas – but beyond those the environment is rather generic. Lahiri references only “the city”, “the neighbourhood”, “the country” (anywhere abroad is simply “another country”). Even Italian, which the narrator probably teaches, is known as “our language”.
This is the quality that the novelist Tim Parks has hit upon in Lahiri’s Italian: “At no point does it draw energy from Italian culture, or even transmit a feeling that her life is now firmly based in the world of Italian.” This perceptive criticism misses the point, though, that Lahiri is straining to evade the clutches of geography, or as she has said, “to arrive at a more abstract sense of place”. Lahiri herself admits her Italian is like “unsalted bread”, but this very lack of the seasoning of local insinuation is what allows her language to achieve such a degree of abstraction.
Where her English thrived on the particular, Lahiri’s Italian reaches for the universal. Astonishingly, Whereabouts contains not a single proper noun: nothing to identify individuals or places. Yet with a burst of adjectives, it manages to nail the experience of all of us wading through liquid modernity: “disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed”. When Lahiri likens a hotel to “a parking garage designed for human beings” – applicable to the business district of any contemporary city worldwide – the image seems emblematic of the universalist vision now shaping her writing.
In English, such a vision seems, intractably, a form of white privilege. Writers of colour know that publishers, academics, even lay readers, bring trite, postcolonial presumptions to their work and load them with the burden of minority representation. Perhaps, in Italian, Lahiri saw the possibility of writing the everywoman English denied her – English, at once too close and too far, in fact her second language (after Bengali) which, according to interviews, always “represented feelings of guilt”. From such anxieties of biography and geography, and for the reader no less than the writer, Whereabouts offers a stylish and therapeutic release.