Jhumpa Lahiri’s life has been marked by a sense of ‘suspension’. Born to Bengali immigrants but brought up in America, she feels ‘without a homeland, and without a true mother tongue’, caught between two worlds and cultures. Her desire to shake off the languages tarnished by personal history leads her to move to Rome and commence writing only in Italian, a language with which she has always been enamoured. In Other Words is a memoir that meditates on – and attempts to make sense of – Lahiri’s process of absorbing her identity as person and writer into a new tongue. It’s her first work of non-fiction, and it’s also her first book written in Italian. A translation by Ann Goldstein is provided alongside the original.
The book exudes a fascination with the materiality of words, from the ‘green plastic cover’ of her first dictionary to the notebooks in which she later inscribes phrases and underlines those she fails to remember. Often Lahiri’s engagement with language takes the form of a relationship with the material text in which she records or reads it. ‘I underline almost every word on every page’, she tells us, later becoming more selective yet equally fervent, underlining ‘like a lunatic every use of the verb essere in the past’. One chapter is called ‘Gathering Words’, as if aspects of Italian vocabulary are material objects to be collected and stored. Lahiri’s notebooks become a concrete reflection of the evolving state of the language inside her mind, their pages filled with the words of writers which shape her lexical knowledge: ‘Manganelli, Verga, Elena Ferrante, Leopardi’. The physical form of the notebook is a source of comfort, a reminder that at all times the words she might forget remain present in their inked incarnation, that she always has ‘a space where [she] can wander, learn, forget, fail.’
Italian, for Lahiri, is often conceived of spatially, as a physical terrain that she attempts to navigate. Her move to Italy which begins the book – a literal oceanic crossing – is quickly recast as a linguistic transition: ‘to know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore.’ The textual and the geographical are conflated, too, in the form of the dictionary Lahiri buys for her first trip to Italy which becomes ‘both a map and a compass’, and without which she ‘knows [she’d] be lost.’ In one chapter the author describes walking in Venice, an experience which she likens to writing in Italian: ‘both in Venice and on the page’ she feels simultaneously unbalanced and inspired. Lahiri can never excise the act of writing from the world around her, conceding that her fiction writing has always been driven by the impulse to ‘feel present on the earth’. It seems only fitting that Italian becomes a landscape in the book, even as it might seem to lack descriptions of the country itself. Her dealings in language become her means to locate herself in her surroundings.
In Other Words has a complex relationship to the concept of translation, and to its own translation. Goldstein, whose translations of the elusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante have been critical and popular successes, was uneasy about the task of taking on a writer whose first language was English. Lahiri rejected the idea of producing an English version of the book herself, feeling ‘the temptation would be to improve it.’ The facing page edition allows us to navigate between the two languages, and there are well-chosen moments when Goldstein retains an Italian phrase in the English: early on, Lahiri’s request to Italian to become its user, ‘Permesso?’, is present in the English with its translation alongside it. The insertion of the Italian phrase into the translation enacts Lahiri’s tentativeness as she attempts to enter a new linguistic terrain, that which feels almost like a transgression.
The logic of this choice is a source of uncertainty for Lahiri, and her writing is interwoven with inconsistencies that complicate the construction of a clear set of motives. Her relationship with English, for instance, is a source of contradiction throughout the narrative: to what extent does she desire to reject it completely? At times, Lahiri suggests that English continues to be a part of her present existence: ‘English remains…the most stable, fixed side’, she writes, in contrast to Bengali, her past, and Italian, her ‘goal’. Yet in the next chapter it is relegated to the historic, described as denoting ‘a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past.’ There is, too, the acknowledgement that, despite the increased freedom Lahiri claims to gainfrom Italian, English will always be more natural to her, and her use of Italian somewhat forced: ‘Italian remains for me a language learned as an adult, cultivated, nurtured’. Her quest to root herself in Italian seems problematic when she remembers that this is the language furthest from being inherently part of her.
But the book confesses to its own uncertainty and this, ultimately, is it’s central theme. Lahiri is not trying to reach a conclusion; the book is a series of reflections that attempt to accurately represent a relationship that eludes circumscription. In the final chapter, Lahiri reflects on the nature of autobiography, commenting that ‘there is little difference between the life of the writer and the events of the book.’ Marking her book clearly out from her fiction – that which, she assures us, is ‘completely invented’ – Lahiri is careful to tell us that she considers it an accurate transcription of her lived experiences: ‘Almost everything in it happened to me . . . it remains my most intimate book but also the most open.’ The contradictions in Lahiri’s narrative bear testament to the openness of autobiography and any sense of finality would be a fiction. The book ends with a reluctant return to America, raising further questions about what Lahiri’s next steps as a writer will be. ‘I can’t predict the future’, she reminds us. We should view Lahiri’s book as she prompts us to view her, as something that remains in suspension, trying to find its place in the world.
By Rebecca Jacobs
Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, Knopf