by Jhumpa Lahiri
reviewed by Jennifer Kurdyla
After a while, terrified, I flee from the shadow of the enormous flaming orb: I fear it will consume me [ … ] I can’t concentrate, everything seems futile, life itself seems banal, it no longer matters if no one pays any attention to me, if no one ever writes to me again.
These are the words of the “great writer” Corrado Alvaro, recalled by the narrator of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fourth novel, Whereabouts, in a chapter titled “At Dawn.” Observing the cyclical, predictable rise of the sun on a winter morning from her rooftop, she watches “until it’s no longer possible, until it becomes too painful.” Then her mind wanders to the above fragment of language wherein another thinker, like her, is pained by the questions of worth and visibility that the sun provokes each morning. This intimate self-awareness is such a heightened presence in Whereabouts that it might be considered the book’s protagonist, separate from the middle-aged woman embodying that consciousness who moves about an unnamed European town over the course of a year in the novel’s pages.
She is indeed something of an afterthought, both to herself and the reader, as we come to learn during our brief, 176-page journey with her. Reading more like a series of encounters—vignette-windows through which we observe snapshots of a life—than what we traditionally consider a novel, the book is a formal embodiment of the person it introduces us to. Being so wholly interested in the movements of the mind, Whereabouts relies on the mundane moments of shopping, taking walks, visiting friends, eating meals, and other everyday occurrences as catalysts for the protagonist’s acceptance, or justification, of her non-self; they are the backdrop for revelations of deep-seated truths one might expect to hear pouring forth from a psychotherapist’s couch.
For example, she euphorically relates how she feels when swimming laps: “In the pool I lose myself. My thoughts merge and flow. Everything—my body, my heart, the universe—seems tolerable when I’m protected by water and nothing touches me.” Once she emerges from that cocoon, though, and is in the company of other women in the locker room, their gossip makes the space “contaminated. And after I get out I’m saturated by a vague sense of dread.” It’s with this same urgent, self-sabotaging way-of-being that she experiences things like getting a manicure; declining dinner with “one of [her] lovers” (a jarring admission, given her palpable distance from other hearts); visiting her mother for the last time before going abroad for a writing fellowship, at which point a missing address book speaks metaphorical volumes about what “home” means to them both.
Despite the casual nature of these encounters, the prose reads with a painstaking precision, somehow requiring as much energy from its reader as a book three times its length. We are invited to share in the narrator’s vigilance, no easy task given the ungraspable nature of her mind. With such attention to language and craft, it’s hard to not contemplate the authorial mind behind these sentences, too, as it was Lahiri’s mind that made formal decisions about the book’s structure. Its chapters are no longer than six pages each, and all of their titles are prepositional phrases. These are scenes of motion, in motion, refusing to land or feel the weight of full attention for too long.
Lahiri’s artistic trajectory perhaps informs some of these qualities, as she herself has been moving deeper along the path of introspection and spareness over her last several publications. In both fiction and nonfiction, she’s revealed a profound inner conflict between her native English language and adopted Italian language (the subject of her most recent, bilingual work of nonfiction, In Other Words). Finding herself a different writer, a different person, in another vernacular, Lahiri puts the shape-shifting-self front and center in this new novel, which she originally wrote in Italian and translated to English herself. Such an undertaking is by no means common, as the dissociation required to self-translate can be difficult for a writer.
In Lahiri’s case, though, the translated, ungrounded self is both the subject and object of Whereabouts, making it a valuable landmark in this artist’s career. Her protagonist indeed proclaims, “I’ve never stayed still,” in one of the final chapters. “I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing [ … ] Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed, turned around. I spring from these terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.” To be these things in two languages—first in Italian, then in English—is to offer a more nuanced view of words as a “foothold.”
Dropping into such a life naturally invites a kind of disorientation into the reading experience, which at times makes the novel hard to fix one’s attention to. But it also offers a relatable, and perhaps strangely comforting, accompaniment to the life of stagnation and forced self-awareness that many readers are currently living. Having lived through a year of quarantine, our worlds have been shrunk down to the scale of hers—the streets and alleys and parks within walking distance of one’s home, or the tortuous avenues of one’s mind, wherein we’ve been given no choice but to probe deeply into the meaning and motive of all our forms of expression, at both individual and social levels.
At the same time, the narrator’s ability to act—to move away from her familiar streets, albeit off the page, at the end of the year we spend with her—is also a provocative counterbalance to our present state. Whereabouts reminds us that a state of melancholy and restlessness can be acted upon, indeed translated into another language. It offers a reassurance: that the changes we dread and desire, that upend and thrill us, are inevitable and universal—including the change that might define our age.
Published on April 28, 2021