ITALY AND THE INNER LIFE: JHUMPA LAHIRI’s ‘WHEREABOUTS’

Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts, London: Bloomsbury, 2021, 157 pp. Translated by the author from Italian original, Dove mi trovo (Milan: Ugo Guanda, 2018).

**

This fine, distinctive short novel is the latest work by Jhumpa  Lahiri, who rose to prominence, globally and in the genre known as Indian Writing in English (IWE), in 2000 with her first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning short story volume Interpreter of Maladies. The London-born author, child of Bengali parents, was educated in the US but now lives in Italy, a circumstance which marks out her new novel as unusual within the IWE genre, since it was originally written and published in Italian and subsequently translated into (American) English by the author herself – a history which should attract the attention of scholars in the field of Translation Studies. The three-year lag between versions means that Lahiri’s English text appears in the time of the pandemic but describes the pre-pandemic world – and thus may be read by some with a nostalgia which was not originally intended.

 

The novel is narrated throughout in the first person, by a woman protagonist who lives alone in a big city and has never married, but is deeply observant of her surroundings and the people she encounters. The woman is not named, and nor are either her city or the country she inhabits. However, internal evidence makes it clear that the country is Italy, as given away when she speaks of trattorias, piazzas or decaying villas, while the city would appear to be Rome. She is presumably of Italian extraction, given her recollections of her family, which give out a sense of them being long-established there.

The book consists of forty-six monologues of varying length, with titles like ‘At dawn’, ‘On the balcony’, ‘In the bookstore’ or ‘At the supermarket’. We accompany the protagonist in her day-to-day activities, observing people and things, sometimes interacting with others but returning home alone. There is some narrational development: towards the end, she decides to go away for an extended absence, to somewhere across the border in an unnamed foreign country, and we last see her on the train heading for her new destination.

The narrating voice is sensitively and cohesively maintained across the novel. The protagonist is characterised by a rich inner life, and there are passages whose introspective depth recalls the Fernando Pessoa of The Book of Solitude/O Livro do Desassossego. Her thoughts and feelings strike parallel chords in the reader: in a time of divided identities, this narration, set in Italy by an author of UK/US/Indian origins, comes across in its emotional accessibility as a plea for a shared humanity and its universalism.

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