ROMAN STORIES, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Translated by the author with Todd Portnowitz.
When Jhumpa Lahiri released her first story collection, “Interpreter of Maladies,” in 1999, it earned her near-immediate status as one of the English language’s most exciting working authors.
Reading her fiction has not gotten any less exciting since then: “Roman Stories,” her newest collection, is melancholy yet electric. But Lahiri has departed from English. After moving to Rome in 2012 and publishing her second novel, “The Lowland,” in 2013, she started writing in Italian, her third language (Bengali is her first), and translating into English. “I write in Italian to feel free,” she wrote in the essay “Why Italian?,” published last year. “I’ve been telling stories all along about characters who change country, who transform their reality.” By switching languages, she has, in a sense, done the same.
Lahiri herself translated six of the nine “Roman Stories,” which was published in Italy as “Racconti Romani.”For the others, she turned to Todd Portnowitz, though she was involved in the process: “Most of my contributions to this translation have to do with word choice, register and tone,” she told The New Yorker. Every translator typically has an individual style, and yet the reader would be hard pressed to distinguish between the hands of Lahiri and Portnowitz in this book. Each story is muted and elegant, laid back in style but not emotion. This creates a continuity that is key to the collection, which is far less unified by its setting than the title suggests.
“Roman Stories”is less about Rome than it is about foreignness. Although nearly all of its protagonists live in the city, not many were born there, and Lahiri generally obscures their national origins. She prefers the vague “foreigner” to the more revealing “immigrant” or “refugee,” using the former as a link between many different ways of being strange to and in a city.
Some of her characters have chosen to be in Rome, like a scholar who feels “married, in the end, more to a place than a person”; others feel trapped there. Some have grown foreign through old age or unhappiness, like the novelist narrator of “P’s Parties,” a story that begins as social comedy and transforms into a meditation on death. The narrator and his wife attend the same party every year, joining a crowd of well-off Italians and expatriates whose shifting dynamics intrigue and alienate the protagonist in equal measure. Lahiri has said that working in an acquired language pushes her toward precision, which, in “P’s Parties” — a story whose bourgeois setting could easily lend itself to satire or a sense of triviality — generates emotional intensity. In “Roman Stories,” her prose is elegant, but at times so direct it can be agonizing.
By far the most painful story is “Well-Lit House,” whose narrator fled conflict in his unnamed homeland as a boy. In Rome, he marries and has five children, and, through the state, he and his wife find their first permanent housing in a suburb with “sky to spare.” Initially, they’re so delighted by the apartment that “a white light would bathe our souls while we made love.” But before long their Italian neighbors make their bigotry plain: “hurling derisive marks at us whenever we left the house,” staging protests, blocking the family from entering their own home while shouting, “Pack your bags.” Eventually, his wife, who wears a veil, flees Italy with the children, and the narrator is left alone selling books in a dark underpass, weighed down by an isolation very different from that of the protagonist in “P’s Parties.”
The fluid transitions between Lahiri’s and Portnowitz’s translations elevate “Roman Stories” from a grouping of individual tales to a deeply moving whole. By putting many kinds of foreignness together, Lahiri shows that they all belong.
ROMAN STORIES | By Jhumpa Lahiri | Translated by the author with Todd Portnowitz | Alfred A. Knopf | 204 pp. | $27