Lengineers tell us that the language is not learned, it develops naturally, like our body. Intrinsically and instinctively, the tongue is an organ – the heart, so to speak, of our consciousness. Replacing one’s mother tongue with a new one therefore seems, if not inconceivable, certainly a test as difficult and risky as a heart transplant.
Incredibly, some writers do just that. It’s quite different from a painter, say, swapping watercolors for acrylics. Indigenous speech is literally molded into the brain; to abandon it for literary ends seems particularly daring. Writers who work in an acquired language fascinate us. But it’s still the same click of big men that come to mind: Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett. Never Chinua Achebe, never RK Narayan – the black or Asian writer is simply expected to adopt English.
It was in this context that Bengalo-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri gave up the language in which his silky phrases once won a Pulitzer Prize. His new novel, Or, was composed in Italian, like the essays composing his last book, In other words. It has been translated into English by the author herself; indeed, the only English sentences Lahiri writes now are translated from Italian.
This intriguing novel depicts the lonely existence, in a nameless place, of a nameless narrator. We know she is a woman and, in a rare concession to biographical details, a college professor, in her forties. She has virtually no family, no relationship, just friends, who are also unnamed and barely characterized, with an element of projection: a married neighbor is, in her opinion, ready to have an affair with her, while a friend must, she imagines, miss the wedding.
Or is a novel in vignettes, each chapter is a postcard of an everyday landmark – “In the bookstore”, “At the beautician”, etc. “In the Hotel” shows the narrator and a guest silently synchronizing their daily walks to the elevator, an “unspoken bond” putting her “obscurely at peace with the world.” These mental dispatches are akin to an introduction to the art of solitude which, Lahiri rightly observes, “requires a certain discipline.”
Although without a plot, the novel remains convincing, like a peephole in a mind sequestered by others. What lies behind the narrator’s inflexible loneliness (“a condition that I try to perfect”) remains obscure. Representing such a character, mysteriously derived in an urban landscape, Or looks like a Michelangelo Antonioni movie, and there’s something cinematic about the way the novel progresses through space, with each chapter featuring a new location, drawn like a map rather than a timeline.
The sense of place here departs radically from Lahiri’s writings in English, where the settings (sultry calcutta, bookish Boston, the Rhode Island of a bored housewife) retain their distinctiveness. Or, faithful to the ambiguity on the place buried in its title, could take place anywhere. The narrator, we presume, lives in Italy – there are pizzas and piazzas – but beyond those the environment is rather generic. Lahiri only refers to “the city”, “the neighborhood”, “the country” (anywhere abroad is simply “another country”). Even Italian, which the narrator probably teaches, is known as “our language”.
This is the quality that novelist Tim Parks sought in Lahiri’s Italian: “At no point does he draw his energy from Italian culture, nor even convey the feeling that his life is now firmly anchored in the world. from Italian. ” This insightful review misses the point that Lahiri is struggling to escape the clutches of geography, or as she put it, “To arrive at a more abstract sense of place”. Lahiri herself admits that her Italian is like “unsalted bread”, but it is precisely this lack of seasoning of the local innuendo that allows her language to achieve such a degree of abstraction.
Where his English has thrived on the particular, Lahiri’s Italian attains the universal. Surprisingly, Or contains not a single proper name: nothing to identify individuals or places. Yet with a flurry of adjectives, he manages to nail down the experience of all of us floundering in liquid modernity: “disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, lost, adrift, perplexed, confused, cut off.” When Lahiri equates a hotel with “a covered parking lot for human beings” – applicable to the business district of any contemporary city in the world – the image seems emblematic of the universalist vision that shapes his writing today.
In English, such a vision seems, intractably, a form of white privilege. Writers of color know that publishers, academics, even lay readers, bring mundane and postcolonial assumptions to their work and burden them with the burden of representing minorities. Perhaps, in Italian, Lahiri saw the possibility of writing all the women English denied her – English, both too near and too far, makes it her second language (after Bengali) which, according to interviews, “always represented feelings of guilt”. Such concerns of biography and geography, and for the reader no less than the writer, Or offers an elegant and therapeutic release.