Jhumpa Lahiri (© Gerardo Gazia/Sintesi/Alamy Stock Photo)

Why do we leave where we come from? The question is central to writers of diasporic fiction, a diverse coterie within which Jhumpa Lahiri tends to be grouped. But with Whereabouts, her third and latest novel, Lahiri resists this potentially reductive characterization by eschewing all but the most general markers of her protagonist’s identity. Made up of forty-six vaguely titled vignettes, one for each year of its nameless narrator’s existence, the novel follows the meanderings of a literature professor living in a nameless Italian city. “On the Street,” “In the Piazza,” “In my Head”—these are the vague coordinates of her whereabouts, both spatial and psychic, as she approaches a crossroads in her life. 

The vignettes in Whereabouts are self-contained, but when read sequentially paint a complicated portrait of a woman burdened by the fixedness of the city where she has lived since her youth. Her connection to this place is challenged by her perception of the “unraveling of time”: most of her friends have families, her mother is aging, and the city is changing, leaving the narrator to wonder where exactly her life is headed. In this way, the novel is cloaked in a certain melancholy. The entries sometimes read like litanies of lost opportunity, as the protagonist mourns once-possible futures, dwells on trajectories her life might have taken. She ruminates over chance run-ins with a man she “might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with,” and silently envies the vivacious teenage daughter of a friend, whose escapades fill her with regret at her own “squandered youth, the absence of rebellion.” 

“In spring I suffer,” one entry begins. “The season doesn’t invigorate me, I find it depleting.” Sharply perceptive, jaded but not bitter, Lahiri’s narrator is not the type for decorum, and at times she appears neurotic. “Afflicted by the green of the trees, the first peaches in the market,” she recounts feelings “of loss, of betrayal, of disappointment.” But it’s not all bleakness. She revels in happy memories too, and conveys small joys with elegant intimacy, such as basking on “the balcony off my apartment when the sun is shining and I’m having breakfast,” or how much she likes “to sit outside, pick up a warm pen...and write down a sentence or two.”

“Whereabouts” paints a complicated portrait of a woman burdened by the fixedness of the city where she has lived since her youth.

Whereabouts is the first novel Lahiri has written in Italian and then self-translated into English. Perhaps best known for her acclaimed short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri has said that she has long felt in a state of “linguistic exile,” which may explain her choice to move to Rome and begin writing in Italian several years ago. The decision also came out of a desire to claim a language for herself, as Lahiri, whose mother tongue is Bengali, described the transition to writing in Italian as a purely personal one, fueled by a desire for artistic challenge, free from the pressures of social representation. 

While diasporic fiction typically chronicles challenges inherent in migrating, the central tension in Whereabouts is an inability to discover new frontiers. Lahiri’s narrator isn’t desperate or seeking a better opportunity; she has material comforts, a secure job, caring friends. She is single, though she prefers to be alone. Her neurosis comes from ostensibly having everything, but still feeling that something is missing. But this tension is frequently circumvented by an intense focus on others. The writing is devoid of any meaningful racial or physical signifiers, so we learn about the narrator mostly through the way she perceives passersby, through her insatiable curiosity about the lives of those she encounters. 

In her city, she is a perpetual flâneuse. From a distance, she follows a woman wearing the same skirt she owns, ponders who the woman is, what she does, where she might be going. Her double helps her realize that “I’m me and also someone else,” a realization that “momentarily ruffles my melancholy.” A man and woman passing by—are they siblings or lovers? Caught in the background of a photo a man takes of his wife, she feels irreparably ingrained in their lives. When surrounded by strangers, she doesn’t “feel even slightly alone,” and is “amazed at our impulse to express ourselves, explain ourselves, tell stories to one another.” She is deeply in tune with the suffering of others, real and imagined, and serves as a thoughtful, impartial observer, reminding me of the angel Cassiel in Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire

Labor and objects are treated as embodiments of human intimacy. While a manicurist delicately works on her nails, the narrator avoids looking in the mirror and spoiling “the moment, or this contact between us,” and strives instead to “focus exclusively on her, acknowledging that though we’re united we’re two separate people.” She moves through the stationery store she visited as a young girl, relishing mundane purchases, “each item validat[ing] my life somehow.” When one of her neighbors begins a long-running house sale, she gradually accumulates his old chipped cups, yellow magazines, and a termite-ridden portrait, wondering if its subject liked “being admired as she rushed about doing errands in winter under a chilly blue sky.” A scholar with whom she shares an elevator strikes her as “circumspect, detached from his surroundings, absorbed by something else,” and she’s captivated by “his large eyes...tender, tinged with sadness,” so she makes a note to read his book. 

Lahiri has said that she has long felt in a state of “linguistic exile,” which may explain her choice to move to Rome and begin writing in Italian several years ago.

The best vignettes in Whereabouts are mundane observations that nonetheless are suffused with a sense of wonder. There are descriptions of the verdant Italian countryside and breathtaking narration of the sun rising in the early winter morning, as “golden light highlights a section of the jagged contours of the hills across the way.” Her heart breaks as she is confronted by the warm light illuminating her city, leaving her “both ablaze with energy and sapped of it.” When a café owner insists she hurry to catch her train instead of waiting to pay, she is moved to tears, left “feeling mysteriously protected by the universe.” Even her simple daily sandwich merits reason to rejoice: “As I eat it, as my body bakes in the sun that pours down on my neighborhood, each bite, feeling sacred, reminds me I’m not forsaken.”

As translation goes, Lahiri’s prose can at times feel sterile, sparse, leaving readers to ponder what’s been lost from the original Italian. There are traces of the language, like when the protagonist routinely inquires about decorative objects from a shopkeeper, who “always asks me the same price.” She refers to her jewelry box as a “portagioie [joy box], which, come to think of it, is the most beautiful of Italian words.” But these moments act as reminders that what’s missing in translation is nothing compared to the vast expanses lost in moving from thought to speech to written word. All of us unknowable universes, we are at once entirely separate and unassailably connected. And our identities can follow suit, derived less through immutable physical markers or ties to places of origin than through the connections we forge to those who surround us. “Because when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light. It makes no difference.... Is there any place we’re not moving through?” the narrator wonders before making a decision that will change her life forever. “These words are my abode, my only foothold.” 

A Novel

Jhumpa Lahiri
$24 | 176 pp.

Published in the July/August 2021 issue: View Contents

Nicole-Ann Lobo, a PhD student at Princeton University, was Commonweal''s 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow. She currently helps organize the Democratic Socialists of America’s Religion and Socialism Working Group and lives in New Jersey.

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