One must marvel at the extraordinary image makeover in recent years of Jhumpa Lahiri, an acclaimed American author of Indian descent. From 2000 when Lahiri burst onto the literary landscape of USA with her debut collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies to 2013 when she published her second novel The Lowland, Lahiri carved out a niche for herself both in American writing and in diasporic literature produced by overseas Indians. It is her first novel The Namesake (2003) which firmly established her reputation as a subtle and elegant English-language chronicler of Indian immigrant experience in America.
After The Lowland, however, came an unexpected turn in Lahiri’s life and career. She fell in love with an Italian and relocated to Italy to learn and live the language. In a couple of years she not only learned Italian but learned it well enough to attempt her memoir in that language. Named In Altre Parole it was published in English translation as In Other Words in 2016. The memoir beautifully described, nay enacted, the halting, painful but eventually joyous process of her tracing out pathways through an alien city yielding slowly to the visiting stranger as the signs became decipherable one by one. A further proof of her sensuous relationship with Italian is how she has not only penned her first novel in Italian, Dove Mi Trovo, but has also named the most beautiful word in that language, ‘portagioie’ (p. 77), the word for jewellery box, meaning ‘joy box’. Surely she will be hard put to perform the same feat in the English language.
As if this journey away from home a la Conrad and Beckett were not enough, Lahiri has, in a further curious twist to her Beckettian tale, proceeded to self-translate Dove Mi Trovo into English as Whereabouts. And with this has come another major shift of fictional gears for her. Lahiri has chosen to move on from the familiar—and somewhat well-trodden—territory of the immigrant and diasporic novel towards an existential exploration of alienation, disconnection and loss of identity in the atomized urban space.
It will be far-fetched to claim that Lahiri has tried to revive the existentialist fiction of the 1960s. But there is definitely more than a passing resemblance between her novel and the fiction, say, of Camus and Sartre. Whereabouts, like The Outsider or Nausea, is concerned with the question of an individual’s authentic existence in a world marked by a widening divide between the objective natural and human environment and the subjective space of the self. Take, for instance, the following passage that is highlighted through its invocation in the back cover of the novel.
The city doesn’t beckon or lend me a shoulder today … The sun’s dull disk defeats me; the dense sky is the same one that will carry me away. That vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks.