Book Review: Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts (Dove Me Trovo)
When I was a student, I liked to wander the streets of the city plotting a story for my first feature film. I always dreamed of a one-ordinary-hero movie where you just follow a person in his daily life: how he gets on a bus, how he argues with his co-workers in the office, how he enjoys his glass of wine and a cigarette at a local corner bar absent-mindedly observing other quests or how he looks confused when accidentally meeting his secret love. It should have been a story without particular story but intimate and familiar to each of us.
My dream was destined to remain in my head as a childish idée fixe, too shallow and poor to be realized. However, there was another woman who has thought otherwise and wrote a book called Whereabouts.
The Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is well-known for her collection of short-stories Interpreter of Maladies and her novel The Namesake adapted into the movie of the same name. Her latest novel Whereabouts is the first of hers actually written in Italian, originally called Dove Me Trovo, and only later translated into English by herself. It is a bizarre case, as Italian is not Lahiri‘s mother tongue. The writer challenged herself to learn Italian and delved into self-studies, attended language courses, took individual lessons, started writing a diary in Italian, moved to Rome... „I feel more protected when I write in Italian, even though I‘m also more exposed... I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way,“ Lahiri reveals in In Other Words.
So I made my choice to read her latest book in Italian, as I always stick to the original, if only my language fluency permits. And I‘ve got thunderstruck from the first paragraph: this was exactly how my imaginary screenplay would have looked like. Only a way better!
Lahiri writes a story without a story. It centres around an unnamed woman presumably in her forties in an unnamed city. She lives alone, without family, and has occasional relations only with a few friends who also remain nameless in the novel. Throughout the book the reader lives in this woman’s head and hears her daily thoughts, as she marches the streets, visits a grocery shop or buys tickets to the theatre. Those fragments of a lonely life resemble the captures of the moments like photographs and postcards do. Even the chapter titles conform with this fragmentation idea: "On the Street”, “In the Bookstore”, “At Home”, “At Dinner”, “At the Sea”, etc.
There’s virtually nothing going on, except a continuous flow of thoughts in the head of the narrator. But thanks to it, the reader becomes aware of the narrator’s character, her habits, attitude and her desires. She might look as a true spinster accustomed to her own style of living, however the moments when she runs into her friend in the neighborhood betray a certain tension between the two, which could possibly transform into a passionate love affair if any of them just made a step forward, or probably not. Unfortunately, her friend is married and his wife is the narrator’s friend, too.
It’s not that plotless idea that is the most compelling but the language itself. It is so simple and universal that seems almost impossible to be considered of a high literary value. Though, in fact, it creates an opposite effect. By avoiding sophistication in language, Lahiri touches the very essence of a human life, naked, unpampered and vulnerable. Because any whereabouts are just generic add-ons you see endlessly floating every day without any meaning or impact.
But even a still life can experience metamorphosis. Changes in whereabouts (like an old stationary shop rearranged into a modern luggage store) are inevitable; meanwhile changes of a human life always need a push. In a course of a year described in the novel, the narrator who had never left the city makes a decision to accept a fellowship abroad. Thus she is moving her whereabouts to another generic territory but with the full load of very specific emotions.