In Other Words would not work if we did not have Jhumpa Lahiri’s literary background, her short stories and novels, and life story to reference. I dislike reviews that focus not on the book in question but on other factors; like the writer’s past work and reputation. I find such reviews dishonest and frustrating because they meander to spaces that leave little room for honest and objective analysis of the book. But to try and put into perspective what this book seeks, aspects of Lahiri’s life and upbringing, but more importantly, themes that seem to connect her stories and characters must be brought forth.
Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her collection of short stories The Interpreter of Maladies, and with it put on the map and into the global consciousness Bengali characters, although accomplished in their American settings, who were conflicted between cultures and languages. Themes and narratives that define her work.
While The interpreter of Maladies was fresh and liberating, her Booker Prize Short-listed novel The Lowland was a work that could have done with a little more research and understanding of Maoist and Naxalite conflict . On one hand it felt like she was trying too hard to make exotic the ways of a Marxist war, albeit with her reliable Bengali comfortable-in-neither-world characters, yet on the other hand, the understanding of local and regional politics left too much to be desired for. The Namesake was fluid yet predictable, and Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories I regard as Lahiri’s most defining pieces of work. Because her style of writing, her construction of sentences, her pauses and stops, take the best shape in these two works. And the language here feels familiar to . It wouldn’t be out of place in any of her books. The writing is sharp even if it feels confined. It’s a quality that I admire, even though I wish that for this one piece of autobiographical writing, writing in another language, Lahiri wouldn’t have been so Lahiri.
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The reading is simple and flows easily. And much credit must also be given to Ann Goldstein. Goldstein, a staff writer at The New Yorker translated it from The Italian. I have always been conflicted with works of translation. Am I reading Ann Goldstein’s work or Lahiri’s? And reading this book only accentuates my conflict. There is many a wide gap between the original and the translated work. Goldstein makes it extremely Lahiri-esque. The style, the sentences that feel heavily edited. Like every bit, every paragraph has been made to go through the paces of a Creative Writing workshop.
Lahiri is reflective and inward in this novel. And like most of her characters the display of emotion feels only surfacial. There is self-awareness, or rather too much of it. Self-indulgence in a book such as this is expected because the narrative is the story. The narrative that is the writer’s back and forth with a foreign language she desires to make her own. The comparison, the struggle between her world in English and her Italian one is the most poignant. The care with which she handles Italian, the words whose meanings she isn’t sure of. These are the building blocks of being comfortable with a second language. The stepping stones to improving at a language that you so eagerly want to be a part of. And In Other Words is a story of that journey. A very inward-looking journey that started as only a tiny inkling to learn a foreign language that the author felt exiled from. A language that was neither Bengali nor English but one whose desire to learnt it she knew would evolve from passion to devotion and into an obsession. And the vulnerability of trying to write correctly, to express assuredly is felt in every chapter here. It’s the novel’s strongest feature. Her stumbles are what makes this book relatable.
Lahiri writes that there are moments in Italian, when she feels suffocated, distraught. Descriptions that wouldn’t be out of place her works of fiction. She says that Italian remains an external language and she fears that it might disappear if she had to leave Italy. Which is why this book feels incomplete. While a part of me wishes it had moved beyond the difficulty of navigating through a new language, the realization of the immense magnitude of that difficulty makes it easier to accept the book for what it is.
I only wish that I could have also read it in the Italian.
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