20 Years On, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Empathetic Fiction is a Lesson for All
Domenico Starnone on the 20th Anniversary of Interpreter of Maladies
Only now, as I prepare to write for the 20th birthday of this remarkable book, does it occur to me that I already celebrated its first ten years of life without knowing it. I did so when, in the fall of 2009, I bought it for one euro in Rome, picking it out of a dusty heap of used books and reading it right away in the course of an afternoon and a long, intense evening. There is no better way to pay tribute to a book, in my opinion.
Back then I knew nothing about the author. It was the book that seduced me, one that betrayed signs of a fervent life: tattered cover, sentences underlined with exclamation points in the margins. But the deciding factor was the title. I knew that I was buying a book of stories, and stories, as we know, aren’t necessarily born in order to coexist. Each might lead a solitary, independent life. Constraining them within a book can sometimes even feel forced unless something signals us to the fact that their cohabitation makes perfect sense. It immediately struck me that Interpreter of Maladies transmitted that signal, even in Claudia Tarolo’s adroit Italian translation, entirely befitting of the original thanks to the Greco-Latin roots of “interpreter” and “malady.”
An interpreter is many things: a mediator between different languages; a well-equipped reader able to fully grasp the complexity of a text and impart its meaning; someone who performs, either faithfully or fancifully, a piece of music or a part in a play. But Jhumpa Lahiri gave her interpreter another, somewhat peculiar matter to interpret: the malaise of men and women. The idea of a person who must find exact, efficacious words for ills appealed to me. I went home satisfied with my new purchase. But I was already convinced, even before I started reading, that I had discovered a splendid definition for someone who, in today’s globalized world, sets out to tell stories. For what is a writer, if not an interpreter of maladies?
All nine stories convey, in a highly multifaceted manner, the lives of Bengalis, their children, and their grandchildren who have turned, in varying degrees, American. In two cases the region of Bengal dominates to the point of being portrayed with no reference to the United States (“A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”). But the other tales are about immigrants whose roots have thinned, whose children have grown American. And yet these transplants endure, to the point of feeling less at home in Calcutta than in Boston, though both Calcutta and Boston remain all the while inscribed within them. This means that any definition of the self, in search of even provisional coherence, must always factor in a nagging, mournful surfeit.
This theme, today, is even more relevant, and the story of how hard it is to hold the fragments of three continents together (“The Third and Final Continent” is the beautiful story that closes the book) is becoming the prevalent story of our times. Fortunately, the nine stories in this book, each an impassioned depiction of a predicament, lack resolution. Jhumpa Lahiri, in her first work, is already an extraordinary story teller, and her Anglo-Bengali characters, with their fragmented identities, lead real lives within impeccable narrative structures.
Jhumpa Lahiri gave her interpreter another, somewhat peculiar matter to interpret: the malaise of men and women.
They are children disoriented by the mysteries of adulthood (“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” and “Sexy”). They are husbands and wives who endure dramatic crises, ambiguous friendships, extra-marital affairs, painful attempts at assimilation in an alienating world (the superb “Mrs. Sen’s”). But above all, what renders these stories so vital 20 years later is the way they are told. Jhumpa Lahiri constructs ample prologues laden with compelling details, interwoven with various possible narrative threads. The reader, turning more vigilant with each sentence, knows full well that at some point a crucial event will take place, and looks for warning signs. This new development will overturn both the lives of the characters and the reader’s own feelings. But when the event takes place, it proves to be both as foreseen and as utterly unexpected as the conclusion toward which the story races.
Interpreter of Maladies is proof that a book deserves a joyful birthday celebration, not only because it has stood witness, for a long time, to a central human condition, but because it has done so with sensibility, intelligence, and an artistry that is extremely refined.
I read the book in Italian, aware that it was a jewel of the English language. And as I read in my language, I never lost sight of the fact that it was in English, that the Bengali roots of the characters spread, twisted, and decayed. It was in English that the malaise of someone who adheres to the American way of life yet senses its indifference to differences—so full of itself as to lack the slightest curiosity for the history or the geography of others—became poetry. This is an important point. These stories, if read carefully, abound with the pleasure of expressing oneself deftly in a language the author has utilized since childhood (metaphors and similes are always so surprising). But when read carefully, they also teem with signs of linguistic unease, pointing to the need to spill over and push past the word “wife”, the word “husband”, the word “national”, the word “foreign”, the word “sexy”.
The Jhumpa Lahiri who, instead of being content with what she has achieved in the literary realm, has begun to expand and complicate her identity and role as interpreter of contemporary woes, moves according to these signs. This writer has implanted Italian into her Anglo-Bengali nature. She has learned it and immersed herself in the literary tradition of a country that has made a significant contribution to the birth of the short story in the West. She has gone on to translate Italian literature, and to interpret that tradition in her own way. But not only that. As the result of a meaningful and unexpected deviation, she is now narrating the ills of the world not in English—a mightily powerful language—but in Italian, a beautiful language of limited reach.
This is an emphatic act of cultural politics, one that swims decidedly against the tide. Mr. Kapasi, the memorable character of the masterful title story of the collection, earns a living by translating the symptoms of Gujarati patients for a doctor who doesn’t know the Gujarati language. Jhumpa Lahiri seems to be saying to the powerful people in our world: pay attention to all the Gujaratis on the planet, get to know them, delight in their beauty and history, appreciate how they are different. Maladies, poorly interpreted, can’t be cured.
From the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, available in October 2019 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Translation copyright © by Jhumpa Lahiri.