Monday, February 1, 2016

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

In my son's eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world.  In a few years he will graduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected.  But I remind myself that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong.  Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, there is no obstacle he cannot conquer.  While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years.  I know that my achievement is quite ordinary.  I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first.  Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.  As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

I did not enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, which seemed to me to obsess over superficial things--meals, houses, knicknacks, lifestyles--without any interest in their deeper implications.  Gogol, the protagonist of that novel, lives a life which is carefully constructed by Lahiri to seem both ordinary and American, and while I stick by that criticism, it's worth conceding that the contrast between Gogol's life and the lives lived by his parents, immigrants from Bengal, is much to the novel's interest.  I think Lahiri's interest in the banal and the ordinary works much better in the stories of Interpreter of Maladies, where the same superficial things can assume a meaningful presence in the more limited confines of short fiction.

As with The Namesake, Lahiri's subject is the intersection of American and Indian identities, and she gives us a host of characters who grapple with that duality: Indian immigrants to America, first-generation American-Indians vacationing in India, white Americans sleeping with Indian-Americans, etc., etc.  She has a special affinity for studying this duality through the eyes of children.  Sometimes this is effective, as in the story "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," in which a young narrator contemplates the plight of the title figure, who visits her parents every night to watch the news about the civil war in Bangladesh, where his wife and children are, thousands of miles away.  Sometimes it does not, as in the story "Sexy," about a white woman having an affair with Indian man.  The narrator of that story has an Indian friend who frets over the adultery of her cousin's husband.  The narrator ends up babysitting this cousin's son, who calls her "sexy"--just like her married lover did--and when the narrator presses the boy to say what he means by that, he defines it as "loving someone you don't know... That's why my father did... He sat next to someone he didn't know, someone sexy, and now he loves her instead of my mother."  From the mouths of babes, I guess.

But the best stories here, I think, are the ones that take place in India.  The title story, about a tour guide who develops something of an obsession with an unhappily married American-Indian woman, mines the cultural divide for a deeper, more universal resonance.  He tells her that he works part time interpreting in Gujarati for a local doctor; she confesses that one of her children is not her husband's.  Western notions of love have failed her, she is unhappy, but he is not a doctor, only an interpreter, and if there is wisdom to be gleaned from her own familial homeland she is unable to access it.  The best story, "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," ignores the question of American identity all together, focusing instead on a chronically sick woman's yearning for marriage.  It has a touch of irony that seems unique among all of Lahiri's earnestness, and for that reason it really stands out.

Lahiri's style is simple and unadorned, blanched of any kind of excess or ornamentation.  It is as self-consciously unmarked as the narrator of "This Blessed House," whose keen desire to fit in is undermined by his new wife, who keeps finding plaster statues of Jesus around the house.  In the context, that seems like a meaningful choice.  In The Namesake I found it tiring, but here it doesn't wear out its welcome, and instead allows Lahiri to uncover a great deal of meaning.

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