In Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Roman Stories,' many characters are caught between two worlds
Readers who have missed the compelling narratives that Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in English before her switch to Italian in 2015 will be happy to learn that Roman Stories is a return to form.
This second book of fiction translated from her adopted language is broader in scope and more moving than her muted, somewhat underwhelming novel Whereabouts. Lahiri's focus here is no longer on generational conflicts between Southeast Asian immigrants and their American offspring. But her return to short stories — a form which she wielded so impressively in her 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies -- is also a return to fiction that powerfully conveys her characters' valiant efforts to navigate geographic and cultural relocations and find their place in the world.
Like Alberto Moravia's Roman Tales (1954), with its portraits of life in the poorer sections of Rome after the second world war, Lahiri shifts her attention in several of these nine stories from well-to-do expats and native Romans to new refugees and immigrants struggling to gain a toehold in a cruelly unwelcoming society. Particularly heartrending are stories like "Well-Lit House," which is narrated by a young man who gratefully lands in a 500-sq.-ft. apartment in a sketchy neighborhood outside Rome with his gracious, elegantly veiled wife and five small children after years in refugee camps and shared apartments — only to be hounded and chased from it by xenophobic neighbors.
In "The Steps," Lahiri offers a sobering view of modern Rome with a six-part portrait of residents who regularly pass through a flight of 126 stone steps, which have become a hangout for teens who perch on them "like flies on a slice of melon," leaving broken bottles and crushed cigarette packets in their wake. The steps become a twice-daily gauntlet for the hard-working woman who thinks of the 13-year-old son she's left behind with his grandparents on another continent while she cares for two young children and their working parents. A distrustful widow who refuses to have her groceries delivered "by some boy from another country" finds the gathered youth frightening. But for an American expat facing surgery in this foreign country — which her husband uses as a perch for his international business travels — the steps remind her of all that she misses in her former bucolic, wooded house outside New York, where she had hoped to raise their three sons.
Lahiri's characters are frequently ambushed — whether by unexpected emotions, like the husband caught off-guard by his adulterous feelings in "P's Parties" — or by actual assault, like the screenwriter mugged on the deserted steps late one night by a group of kids, who take his cash and the digital watch his young second wife gave him for his 60th birthday. In "The Delivery," a presumably dark-skinned housekeeper out on an errand for her patrona feels pretty plucky in her polka dot skirt — until she's felled in a drive-by attack by two boys on a motorino who derisively call out, "Go wash those dirty legs."
Many of Lahiri's characters are caught between two worlds. But in her recent fiction, the worlds are never specifically identified. Even those born in Rome suffer from a sense of foreignness. They all remain nameless — in sharp contrast with those in her earlier work, such as Gogol Ganguli, the hero of her first novel, The Namesake. This highlights the loss of identity that comes with relocation and alienation, and suggests the universality of such situations. But with this lack of specificity comes a disconcerting remoteness — and, at times, an unwieldy akwardness. In "The Reentry," another story about racial prejudice, the two unnamed women meeting at a trattoria are referred to repeatedly as "the woman in mourning" and "the professor"; names would have been simpler and, if well-chosen, more effective identifiers.
In "Dante Alighieri," the final Roman tale, an American-born scholar of Italian literature married to an older Italian doctor reconsiders the three great betrayals she has committed in her life: of her best friend in college, of her husband, and finally, of her own desires suppressed by "false virtue." We learn how she moved away from her husband by degrees — a sort of continental drift — returning to America to teach while keeping an apartment in Rome. During her beloved mother-in-law's funeral, she reflects: "You travel a certain distance, you desire and make decisions, and you're left with recollections, some shimmering and some disturbing, that you'd rather not conjure on. But today, in the basilica, memory dominates, the deepest kind. It waits for you under the rock — bits of yourself, still living and restless, that shudder when you expose them." And she wonders, "How long must we live to learn how to survive?"
It is a question that underscores many of the stories in this affecting collection.
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