By Jhumpa Lahiri
Reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel, her first written in Italian, feels like an impossible task because the work is pared down to its essence, and arrives like a holding space for work to come. After publishing the book in Italy in 2018 as “Dove Mi Trovo,” Lahiri translated it into English, choosing the title “Whereabouts.”
A slender novel, “Whereabouts” is composed of 46 chapters, or entries, sequenced over the course of a year. These are the work of an unnamed writer in her late 40s who teaches at a university. “In spring I suffer,” one entry begins, and another: “A bachelor friend of mine likes hosting dinners at his house.” Each reflection is place-stamped by its title: “At the Coffee Bar,” “In the Hotel,” “At My House,” “In the Shade,” “In My Head,” “At the Supermarket” and so on.
“Whereabouts” is like a photographer’s contact sheet. As our eyes move across the images, sensitive to each reframing, a loose narrative emerges of an Italian woman at a crossroads in her life. But narrative is not what this book is after. Each entry, most only a few pages long, stands on its own; any could be removed without leaving an absence. Or, as the writer puts it when discussing her therapist: “As if each session were the first and only time we met. Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter.”
The entries sometimes sing and sometimes perplex. This is partly because although written by the same narrator, they seem to emerge from a person not fully realized. At times she seems Italian and at other times not; rooted yet adrift; untraveled yet well traveled; parochial yet cosmopolitan. Of course, the narrator may rightfully be all these things. Disjunctures — between fragmentation and novelization, between joyful solitude and frightened loneliness, between assertions of contentment and evidence of dissatisfaction — permeate every chapter.
The writer says, “I’ve never left this city,” yet even the people and places she knows well are described with an abstracted quality. The chapters detail encounters: We learn of a friend’s husband with whom she imagines a romantic entanglement; a lover who keeps pocket-dialing her; an ex-boyfriend of five years (“But he’s never amounted to much, he remains puerile and full of complaints, in spite of his middle-aged man’s body”); the therapist; a few friends, mostly interchangeable; a baptism and a conference, grudgingly attended. But other humans are like passing shadows. Unnamed, they become a kind of background, serving primarily as vehicles for the writer’s reflections.
Wryly she says, “Solitude: It’s become my trade.” This is a difficult novel because the pain of the narrator’s isolation feels extremely real. The book sheds dramatic structure, connective tissue and other characters, as if they were all part of a lifelong cage. In the brief, almost airy entries, where sentences are honed to minimalist beauty, the overriding sensation is of a shrinking world: a woman trying, before it is too late, to pull herself from a carapace.
In translating the novel’s Italian title, “Dove Mi Trovo” (“where I find myself” or “where I am”), Lahiri avoids the implied “myself” and focuses instead on the spatial: “Whereabouts.” It’s a beautiful translation, one that reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s question “Where are we when we think?” The most exciting moments of “Whereabouts” are when it becomes a novel of thinking, when it dives down into its sharp fragments, such as in this provocative line where the writer describes the experience of swimming: “Everything — my body, my heart, the universe — seems tolerable when I’m protected by water and nothing touches me. All I think about is the effort.”
Where the novel grows thin is when the “I” begins nearly every sentence; the more the “I” controls the language, the more the life of the mind seems to recede. Lahiri’s commitment — to write fiction in Italian, while also, in this novel, paring language down to a minimalist power — begins to create a generalized syntax, disconcertingly simplified. Her city in summer is described as wasting “away like an old woman who was once a stunning beauty”; a country home is an “area that’s resisted change, that remains unspoiled”; a visit to a nail salon is summed up as: “All the women come from the same country, and while they diligently see to our needs they talk continuously in their language.” It’s not that the descriptions are clumsy; rather, language glides along the surface of things. The polished words sometimes seem to lose contact with living existence, providing instead a skillful description of a two-dimensional world — a picture of a picture.
Late in the novel, the writer observes: “Because when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light. It makes no difference whether I’m under a clear blue sky or caught in the rain or swimming in the transparent sea in summer. … Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.”
Setting, the narrator concludes, is interchangeable; indeed, in this novel, place is decisively generic. Story is distilled to atmosphere, like a corner that implies a whole. The continuous surfaces of the novel are tantalizing but arrive at the surface of another beginning.
“Whereabouts” ends with the writer on a train, leaving her home to accept a fellowship in “a place I’ve never been before.” She is enamored of a group of other passengers — a family or maybe just friends — a “foreign brigade” basking in one another’s company, strangers to loneliness, practicing a new language.