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In Other Words - review

Dissatisfied with her native and adopted tongues, Jhumpa Lahiri tries a third.

Jhumpa Lahiri: immersed in Italian. Photo/Elena Seibert
Jhumpa Lahiri: immersed in Italian. Photo/Elena Seibert

Jhumpa Lahiri shares in this memoir her tempestuous relationship with the Italian language; after 20 years of broken acquaintance she decides to take it as her lover, and moves her family to Italy so she can be totally immersed.

Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Lowland and The Interpreter of Maladies, was born in London to immigrants from West Bengal but raised in the US. Her connection to language – Bengali is her first tongue and English her second – is at the centre of her identity, yet she feels herself a person divided between two cultures, belonging to neither. In Italian – a language she first encountered as a student during a visit to Florence – she seeks to find a language to call her own. Lahiri began the three-year evolution of In Other Words by writing in a journal purely in Italian. Her decision to write only in Italian is bold: to wholly and solely adopt a new language of expression means relinquishing her “authority” as a writer.

Ann Goldstein, who brought Elena Ferrante’s works into English, handles the task of translating Lahiri’s back, and the dual language format of the book, Italian and English side by side, provides a clever kind of magic. It’s initially ­disorientating, but as that feeling gently fades and Lahiri’s search for a new voice begins to implore the reader, it becomes almost a game to seek out the Italian words, guessing at sentences and discerning meaning in the same way as the author. Just as Lahiri talks about keeping her Italian dictionary close, so too the reader keeps the Italian translation close. The effect is subtle – at first confusing, then curious, eventually absorbing.

LS1616_b&c_Other-wordsThere is quiet melancholy in Lahiri’s writing, her determination and passion tempered by frustration and struggle. The memoir begins in simple sentences, and as Lahiri’s ease with the language grows, her expression becomes more complex and nuanced. In Other Words contains Lahiri’s first two attempts in Italian at short-story writing, a form in which she is a master. The wealth of ideas in each story is corralled by a somewhat limited yet highly expressive use of language. Somehow the restrictions lend a profound weight, and the two works are both mysterious and familiar.

Lahiri makes you think about the isolation and loneliness of language. Her description of her parents, alone in the US and missing their native tongue, is deeply affecting; when you don’t know the words of your adopted culture and have left home behind, you have no voice, no connection. Conversely, Lahiri then explores the freedom she discovers in her own new set of limitations. You can begin again in a new language and culture, choosing an aspect of yourself to become, and shed the skin that never quite fitted you.

IN OTHER WORDS, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury, $32.99)

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