The dilemma of expressing oneself ‘In altre parole’.
I was curious but at the same time also a bit skeptical about Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book ‘In altre parole’ (meaning ‘In Other Words’), an autobiographical book, written in Italian by this thought-provoking author, winner of the Pulitzer Price in the year 2000 with the collection of short stories ‘Interpreter of Maladies’.
I was curious because it was written in a language that is not ‘hers’, and I was eager to understand what drove this famous author to this intriguing choice. It was the same step taken by people like us, who opted to write in a language that is not their mother tongue. Skeptical because I did not know if I should expect yet another temporary, fleeting declaration of love by an author to the beauties of Italy and its language.
This work is a declaration of love, indeed, but of a deeper passion that transcends ‘appearance’, and helps the author reach a sense of fulfillment, while breaking free from the constraint of two languages that – for her culture of woman of Indian origin grown up in the USA- never fully belonged to her: Bengalese and English. Italian is a wanted choice, a challenge, a passion. However, exactly like all love stories, it presents the risk that one’s feelings might not be necessarily reciprocated.
‘Non avrei un vero bisogno di conoscere questa lingua. Non vivo in Italia, non ho amici italiani. Ho solo il desiderio. Ma alla fine un desiderio non è altro che un bisogno folle. Come in tanti rapporti passionali, la mia infatuazione diventerà una devozione, un’ossessione. Ci sarà sempre qualcosa di squilibrato, di non corrisposto. Mi sono innamorata, ma ciò che amo resta indifferente. La lingua non avrà mai bisogno di me.’
This is my translation of this beautiful passage: ‘I shouldn’t have a real need to learn this language. I do not live in Italy, I do not have Italian friends. I only have the wish. But, in the end, a wish is nothing more than a foolish need. Like in many passionate relationships, my crush will become devotion, obsession. There will always be something unbalanced, unrequited. I fell in love, but what I love stays indifferent. The language will never need me.’
Lahiri, whose prose is elegant, accurate and rich in evocative imagery, took up the challenge of learning Italian twenty years ago, feeling – during a trip to Florence (to view Renaissance architecture, the subject she was studying at Boston University) – an immediate attraction for our language. The sound of it intrigued her, and soon she became obsessed with this new ‘love’ that she dearly missed once she was back in the USA. There, she embarked on a tough learning process, wishing to master the language to perfection. She changed different tutors, but every time she tried to write or speak, she faced the frustration that – despite all her efforts – there was always something wrong: a preposition, a tense, the use of a word or a misinterpretation of it. This is the result of learning a language ‘in exile’, in a place where it is not spoken or used. Bengalese, the language of her family, was also for her a language in exile and paradoxically, it did not represent her mother tongue. She only used it within the four walls of her parents’ house, and soon English prevailed. After four years of studies with an Italian private tutor, Lahiri made a big decision: moving to Italy with her family, precisely to Rome.
In Italy, Lahiri feels immersed in the language, entering an unexplored territory, a voluntary exile, feeling happy and disoriented at the same time. She starts reading Moravia, Pavese, Quasimodo and Saba in Italian, scrupulously. Completing the reading of an Italian book overwhelms her with emotions. She lists the terms that she does not know: imbambolato, sbilenco, incrinatura, capezzale, sgangherato, scorbutico, barcollare, bisticciare (dazed, lopsided, nick, sickbed, rickety, peevish, to wobble, to bicker). She creates her own Italian dictionary, annotating in it all the new and unusual words. These words are sometimes easily forgotten, and although she wants to use them and be in touch with them, so that they can become a part of her, they do not come out, they just stay stuck on the page. In Rome, Lahiri starts writing a diary in Italian and this sets her free, despite the mistakes and imperfections: it gives her the needed discipline. The spoken language, that she can at this point master quite well, is not of much help: ‘Una conversazione implica una specie di collaborazione e, spesso, un atto di perdono. Quando parlo posso sbagliarmi ma, in qualche modo, riesco a spiegarmi. Sulla pagina sono sola.’ (‘A conversation implies a sort of cooperation and, often, an act of forgiveness. When I speak, I can make mistakes but, in a way, I manage to explain myself. On the page, I am alone’). She embarks on the project of writing a short story and realizes that this experience leads her to a rift but at the same time to a new birth, and she feels bewildered.
The short story ‘Lo scambio’ (‘The exchange’, included in this book) is about a translator that moves to a new town, in search of a life change. She does not carry anything with her, just her light, black woolen jacket. In strolling around the new city, she suddenly follows a group of women, who are going to an open house, a sale of hand-made garments. Once there, she tries on a few items, and then decides to leave without purchasing anything. Before leaving, she looks for her black jacket but she cannot find it anymore. The house owner shows her one, but it is not hers: different wool, size and intensity of colour. After the owner unsuccessfully calls up all the women who came to the open house to check if anyone took her jacket by mistake, the translator decides to leave with the one that is not hers. The day after, once she wakes up, she sees the ‘new’ jacket, now more familiar. It does not look like the one she used to have, but it is hers, for sure. The woman actually prefers it to the other one and, in wearing it, she feels that she has also become a different person.
As a translator, I empathize with this metaphor of change that happens in us once we approach a foreign language. We ‘change clothes’, and suddenly find ourselves comfortable in those that, previously, we might have rejected as not our own.
Changing is taking risks, but from the creative point of view, there is nothing more dangerous than ‘safety’. Lahiri quotes the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes: ‘It is extremely useful to know that you will never be able to reach the height of the mountains’. The ‘awareness of impossibility’ is central to the creative process. We soon discover that, for Lahiri, learning Italian is a way to find an identity, even if through a painful process. Expressing herself in Italian gives her a sense of imperfection that is utterly stimulating.
This acquired interest for Italian creates a detachment between Lahiri and the English language that she expresses in this way: ‘Ma penso che un allontanamento sentimentale sia sempre più spiccato, più lancinante quando, nonostante la prossimità, resta una voragine.’ (‘But I think that a sentimental estrangement is even more marked, more piercing when, despite proximity, there is a chasm.’). Also from the Italian language though, Lahiri feels, sometimes, a sense of estrangement. She does not belong to Italy or to Rome and ‘who does not belong to any specific place, in reality, cannot go back anywhere.’ There is pain in any joy: in Italy, despite excelling in the language and in its pronunciation, she realizes that her husband (American of Spanish origin, and called Alberto) is easily exchanged for an Italian, and his Italian (despite not being better than Lahiri’s), is openly praised. Nevertheless, this never happens to her: due to her looks, she is still perceived as a ‘foreigner’, accepted only by her good Italian friends as truly one of them. The same happens in America, where she crashes against the same wall, despite knowing English perfectly, and in Calcutta, where people think that she can only speak English.
This triangle, as Lahiri calls the encounter of the tree languages of her life, has a third side that developed out of choice. Studying Italian is a way to escape the collision between Bengalese and English, a refusal of the mother and stepmother, an independent path that allows the author to run away from her failures and from her success. Mentioning Ovid’s masterpiece, ‘Metamorphoses’, Lahiri identifies this process as the desire of going through a metamorphosis: it creates a transition period of loss and liberation, of violence and regeneration. It generates a double identity, it changes her relationship with English, allowing her to become a different writer in Italian. This might well be a risky choice, but ‘I momenti di transizione, in cui qualcosa tramuta, costituiscono la spina dorsale di tutti noi. Che siano una salvezza o una perdita, sono i momenti che tendiamo a ricordare. Danno un’ossatura alla nostra esistenza. Quasi tutto il resto è oblio.’(‘The moments of transition, when something goes through a transmutation, are the backbone of all of us. Were they about salvation or loss, these are the moments we tend to remember. They give a structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.’)
Lahiri’s book of reflections is a good read for everyone who writes (knows Italian), and does it in another language. It also deepened my understanding of what drives Lahiri’s prose: identity, estrangement, sense of belonging, struggle between cultures (think of ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ ‘The Namesake’ and ‘The Lowland’) that keeps her characters ‘suspended’ and often torn between difficult choices. Lahiri’s sentences, in this short autobiographical work, are concise (‘English-style’), and – as this is mainly a flow of personal reflections – we find less of her evocative writing style. But her sincerity, her inner struggles and the sense of respect for the Italian language, make us definitely appreciate the full testimony of her (often unrequited) love for it.
Neither the gusts of northerly wind
nor dry sirocco from African desert
A sticky sensation of sand glued my lips
despite the fly that was insistently buzzing near my ear.
the suspicious, foreign words took possession of the room
and sat down, chatting,
while I was feeling baffled.
They turned the tables on me:
the flare of a match lighted up on my face.