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A writer burdened by her (second) language of success

In Other Words

By Jhumpa Lahiri 256pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99 Words. Interpreter of Maladies. In Other The Namesake lento, zoppicante Other Words In

The extraordinary story of Jhumpa Lahiri might have come out of one of her own collections. “Rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake,” she writes in her latest book,

Or rather, she writes, “In modo piuttosto precipitoso, sono diventata una scrittrice famosa,” and her translator, Ann Goldstein, renders it into English. This is the story of Lahiri’s passionate affair with Italian, her third language; the book is published in both tongues, Italian on the verso pages, English on the recto.

Lahiri’s life-changing prize was the Pulitzer, awarded in 2000 for her first book of short stories,

Raised in India, speaking Bengali until the age of four, her family’s emigration to America brought Lahiri an elegant mastery of English and a singular eye for the human experience. Readers worldwide responded to her tales of migration, love and mismatched marriage. Bestselling novels and collections, awards and a 2006 film adaptation of followed.

But there was trouble amid the fairy tale. “For practically my whole life, English has represented a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety,” she confesses. “I was afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’mtired of it.”

As the book progresses we discover the crises, personal and professional, which propelled Lahiri’s dash from her mother tongue, Bengali, and English, her “stepmother”. “They were incompatible adversaries. I felt they had nothing in common except me.” Lahiri’s reaction was a flight to Italian as if to a room of her own.

In Lahiri’s stories, a man and woman who sit next to each other on an aeroplane may well end up in bed together. Her first encounter with the Italian language, on a visit to Florence, was similarly decisive; she went on to study it in America.

After her literary success she decided to move her family to Rome and immerse herself – to read and write only in her new tongue and to renounce English altogether.

Lahiri’s account of this experiment feels (slow, halting), like the intimate history of an affair. The sonorous character of the language encourages her to illustrate and repeat herself: anything sounds better in Italian, but everything is said sooner in English. She chroicles the confusion caused by synonyms, homophones and prepositions, by the imperfect and the simple past tenses.

The book does not show us much of anything beyond the lovers, Lahiri and the Italian language. Even a visit to Venice yields little but an extended metaphor: the city’s bridges remind her of the distance between herself and fluent Italian, and the water below represents English, into which she dreads to fall. But as an insight into ruthless creative daring and obsession with language,

is superb. “From the creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security,” Lahiri writes. Finding new ways to express herself throws her into “a kind of ecstasy”.

The book also contains two short stories, both composed in Italian: “The Exchange”, a metaphorical piece, and “Half-Light”, an exquisite, parable of isolation within marriage. Both tales are unlike Lahiri’s previous work, their dreamy, allegorical mood closer to Italo Calvino. “I don’t give the same weight to factual truth,” she says. “The places are undefined, the characters so far are nameless, without a particular cultural identity. The result is writing that is freed from the concrete world.”

Lahiri does not know whether she will return to writing in English. I rather hope she does not.

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