- - Thursday, April 28, 2016


By Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 256 pages

It’s not unknown for a novelist — even an acclaimed novelist — to write in a foreign language. Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov wrote in English though their first languages were Polish and Russian respectively. Irishman Samuel Beckett switched from English to French. Now Jhumpa Lahiri, a prize-winning author of short stories and novels in English, has decided to follow suit, abandoning English in favor of Italian.

“I have written exclusively in Italian for more than two years now,” she explains in the author’s note to her fifth book “In Other Words.” It’s an extraordinarily unusual choice. Unlike Nabokov, who grew up learning English from governesses, she did not encounter Italian until she visited Florence when she was in her 20s. And unlike Conrad, who learned English working on ships, and Beckett, who switched from English to French after living in Paris for 30 years, she chose to learn Italian while living in America and winning accolades for her works in English. She switched to writing in Italian after living in Italy for only one year. “In Other Words” describes how she made that transition and what it means for her.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents. The family moved to Rhode Island when she was two, so she grew up in America, speaking first Bengali and then English. Eventually she earned a doctorate in 17th-century English literature, and then sprang to fame when her debut short story collection, “Interpreter of Maladies” (1999), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and her first novel, “The Namesake” (2003) was made into a successful film.

She often refers to her love of English in “In Other Words,” but she also treats it warily. She compares Italian to a newborn whom she wants to coddle and protect, while English is like “a hairy smelly teenager.” When she translates a piece she wrote in Italian into English, the stronger language seems angry with her because she has abandoned it. “Go away, I want to say to it. Don’t bother your little brother, he’s sleeping. He’s not a creature who can run around and play. He’s not a carefree, strong, independent kid like you.”

Thinking of Italian in this way is a sign of her progress with the language. Early in the book she compares her first efforts to learn it as like getting to the opposite shore of a lake by swimming around the edge because it’s less scary than the direct route across the deep center. Uprooting herself and going to live in Italy is like striking out across the middle.

The move to Italy came after many years of studying with teachers in America. Both here and in Italy Ms. Lahiri was nothing if not the most diligent of students. “Every day when I read, I find new words, something to underline, then transfer to the notebook. It makes me think of a gardener pulling weeds. I know that my work, like the gardener’s, is ultimately folly. Something desperate. Almost, I would say, a Sisyphean task.” These metaphors of weeding and shouldering a burden take their place among numerous others that grasp at her experience. There’s that metaphor of swimming, and also a comparison with falling in love; another of gathering words in the woods and collecting them in a basket. There are numerous comparisons to paths, even to the underground service tunnels at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. At no point does she suggest that learning Italian was easy, but always that it was a compulsion. Unlike the gardener who throws away the weeds he yanks, she says, “I, on the other hand, gather up the words. I want to hold them in my hand, I want to possess them.”

And having gathered and possessed them, she decides to use them exclusively in her writing — even though English remains her strongest language, the one she can write without using a dictionary or checking grammar rules. The advantage, she explains, is that “In learning Italian I learned again to write.” While the new language confronted her, it allowed her to rebel and gave her “a more extensive, more adult gaze,” and “a new detachment.” She doubts that she will ever write again in English, knowing from her immigrant parents that “once you’ve left, you’ve left.” In any case, as she notes, the themes of identity and alienation are central to “In Other Words,” as they are to her earlier books.

“In Other Words” will resonate for immigrants and bilinguals, who know that changing places and languages inevitably involves a different iteration of oneself. Readers who have never made such changes will find themselves intrigued, and, yes, challenged by a decision that seems at first bizarre but is eventually revealed as an affirmation of the writer’s art.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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