Whispers of Rome: Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri gained near-immediate recognition as one of the most intriguing living writers of the English language when she published her debut collection of short stories, “Interpreter of Maladies,” in 1999.

Since then, reading her writing hasn’t gotten any less thrilling: “Roman Stories,” her most recent book, is electric and melancholic. Lahiri, though, has abandoned English. She began writing in Italian, her third language (Bengali is her first), then translating into English after relocating to Rome in 2012 and published her second book, “The Lowland,” in 2013. In the essay “Why Italian?,” which was published last year, she stated, “I write in Italian to feel free. “I’ve been telling stories about characters who relocate and alter their reality for as long as I can remember.” She has essentially done the same thing by changing her words.

Six of the nine “Roman Stories,” which were published in Italy as “Racconti Romani,” were translated by Lahiri herself. Even so, she was active in the process: “Most of my contributions to this translation have to do with word choice, register, and tone,” she told The New Yorker. For the remaining passages, she turned to Todd Portnowitz. Although each translator has their own distinct style, it would be difficult for the reader to tell whether this book was translated by Lahiri or Portnowitz. Each tale is subdued and refined, casual in attitude but emotionless. The collection, which is much less linked by its place than suggested by the title, depends on this continuity.

“Roman Stories” is more about being foreign than it is about Rome. Despite the fact that the majority of its protagonists reside in the city, few of them were actually born there, and Lahiri frequently conceals their national origins. She uses the general term “foreigner” to connect a variety of ways of being odd to and in a city, as opposed to the more specific terms “immigrant” or “refugee,” which are more revealing.

Some of her characters—like a researcher who feels “married, in the end, more to a place than to a person”—have chosen to be in Rome, while others feel trapped there. Some, like the author narrator of “P’s Parties,” a narrative that starts off as social humour and eventually becomes a reflection on mortality, have become foreign due to old age or misery.

Every year, the narrator and his wife travel to the same party where they mix with wealthy Italians and foreigners, whose fluctuating dynamics both captivate and enrage the main character. Lahiri has stated that writing in an acquired language forces her to be precise, which creates emotional intensity in “P’s Parties,” a novel whose bourgeois milieu could readily lend itself to ridicule or a sense of triviality. Her writing is exquisite in “Roman Stories,” yet it can also be agonisingly direct at times.

The story “Well-Lit House,” whose narrator escaped conflict in his nameless nation as a child, is by far the most traumatic. He marries in Rome, has five kids, and uses the government to find his wife and first home together in a suburb with “sky to spare.” When they first move in, they are so ecstatic that “a white light would bathe our souls while we made love.”

However, soon after, their Italian neighbours demonstrate their prejudice by “hurling derisive marks at us whenever we left the house,” staging demonstrations, and obstructing the family’s entrance to their own home while yelling, “Pack your bags.” Eventually, his veiled wife and kids leave Italy, leaving the narrator alone to sell books in a shadowy underpass while feeling a great deal more alone than the protagonist of “P’s Parties.”

“Roman Stories” becomes a powerfully affecting totality thanks to the seamless transitions between Lahiri’s and Portnowitz’s translations. Lahiri demonstrates that all forms of foreignness belong by combining several types of foreignness.

About the Author

The Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Barnard College (Columbia University) is the bilingual writer and translator JHUMPA LAHIRI. For her first story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Additionally, she is the author of The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland, a fiction National Book Award and Man Booker Prize candidate.

In Altre Parole (In Other Words), Il Vestito dei libri (The Clothing of Books), Dove mi trovo (self-translated as Whereabouts), Il quaderno di Nerina, and Racconti romani are just a few of Lahiri’s works of fiction, essays, and poetry that have been published in Italian since 2015. She is the editor of The Penguin Classics Book of Italian Short Stories, which was released in Italy as Racconti Italiani, and has translated three of Domenico Starnone’s novels. President Barack Obama awarded Lahiri the National Humanities Medal in 2014, and President Sergio Mattarella appointed her Commendatore of the Italian Republic in 2019. Her most recent work in English, Translating Myself and Others, was released by Princeton University Press in the spring of 2022.

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