Writing in Italian, Jhumpa Lahiri Found a New Voice

“Whereabouts,” in contrast, is an austere, virtually plotless book. Its unnamed narrator is a solitary Roman woman — though Rome is never...


“Whereabouts,” in contrast, is an austere, virtually plotless book. Its unnamed narrator is a solitary Roman woman — though Rome is never mentioned — who recounts her few excursions in brief chapters. Lahiri offers readers glimpses of the woman at the pool (“In that container of clear water lacking life or current I see the same people with whom, for whatever reason, I feel a connection”), herded unexpectedly into a guided tour (“I’m caught in the charade, I play a part in it, albeit as an extra”), eating a sandwich in a playground (“As I eat it, my body bakes in the sun that pours down on my neighborhood, each bite, feeling sacred, reminds me that I’m not forsaken”).

Other characters appear — her therapist, her mother, a friend — yet the interactions reinforce the narrator’s isolation. “Solitude: It’s become my trade,” she tells herself.

Alessandro Giammei, an assistant professor of Italian at Bryn Mawr and a former colleague of Lahiri’s, was an early reader of both the Italian and English versions. In “Dove Mi Trovo,” he was struck by the elegance of the language and the precision of Lahiri’s word choices. “You cannot read this book without moving your mouth in Italian,” he said.

“The incredible detail of her observational writing that is classic Jhumpa Lahiri is not in ‘Whereabouts,’” Giammei said. If, in English, Lahiri is an eye, he added, “in Italian, she’s an ear.”

Lahiri began drafting “Whereabouts” in 2015, after the Italian version of “In Other Words” had been released. It began as a series of sketches, scenes she’d jot down in a notebook. By the time she could see them coming together in a book, she had moved to the United States for the job at Princeton, but she returned frequently to Rome, writing more sequences with each visit.

“The Italian was like a faucet back then,” she said. “It would only work when I was there.”

Apart from her own writing — “Whereabouts” is the third book she composed in Italian, following “In Other Words” and “The Clothing of Books,” published in 2016 — Lahiri kept busy with other translations and editing projects. She has translated two novels by an acclaimed contemporary writer, Domenico Starnone, one of which was a finalist for a National Book Award, and has a third set for release in the fall. Dismayed by the lack of quality translations of some of her favorite Italian writers, she edited and contributed translations to a volume of collected short stories. Several of those selections, including stories by Elsa Morante and Fabrizia Ramondino, had never before appeared in English.

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