Whereabouts, Context and Depth?

The second book that my parents gifted me for my birthday this year, besides Amartya Sen’s memoir is Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. I had already read about her attempt to write this book in Italian and then translate it back into English herself and one marvels at the author’s courage. Around three years ago I think it was, that I read a long interview with her in The Paris Review about her desire to learn Italian and all that she had to go through in order to learn it well, including relocating to Rome with her family for a few years. She had already undertaken translation work from Italian into English at the time.

Whereabouts is a slim volume of 160 pages and has 46 chapters crammed into it. And it’s a hardback edition with large print, so you can imagine how short indeed each chapter is. Together, they read like what might have been a young woman’s diary or journal, jotting down details of the day’s events, however mundane. But, of course, they are not diary entries, since there’s no specificity of location, date or time.

Fragments, then? Not really. For fragments would try to capture the narrator’s thoughts or experiences in their entirety, however brief. Instead, Whereabouts is a series of recollections in a woman’s life, of fleeting moments in her rather hum-drum existence. But then, they aren’t recollections either, since they are narrated in the present tense and in first person. Let us just say that the woman narrator is perhaps reliving these moments as she recollects them.

It isn’t just a question of genre that Whereabouts raises, but whether the moments described really add up to anything. They don’t seem to lead anywhere, literally and figuratively. It is, of course possible to live, reminisce and linger in the moment, but that isn’t quite what Jhumpa Lahiri’s narrator does either. That would require staying in the moment long enough to delve deep into an emotional undercurrent, or take surprising detours leading back to where the narrator was and what she was thinking about.

This has neither the depth nor the leap of imagination required to make each incident described in each chapter speak of what is really going on in the narrator’s mind. In fact, I hope I am not being too harsh when I say that the narrator in Whereabouts seems to live in a very limited world. For her thoughts never seem to go beyond the immediate physical surroundings, and the obvious. The writing too is staccato, especially in the initial chapters. The sentences, matter-of-fact, merely accumulate, never quite accreting to anything substantive. Sometimes, the focus of the story is itself misplaced.

Take the chapter titled In the Piazza in which the narrator talks about a young, 16-year-old daughter of friends and how she’s finding it hard to manage her father and stepmother’s constant bickering. An encounter in the piazza leaves the narrator looking back regretfully at her own youth and wondering what she’s achieved, when I thought the story was about a young daughter of a broken family and how she feels lost and at sea, even if she’s full of wild ambition. The writing too is prosaic.

“I watch her as she cycles through the piazza. She could be my daughter given that I’m thirty years older. But she’s already a woman, with a beauty that’s disarming. A girl who smiles as she speaks, as if to declare to the world, See how happy I am. Nothing like I was at that age: still a child, no boyfriends, ill at ease. I’m envious. I still regret my squandered youth, the absence of rebellion.”

I thought this could have been the point for Lahiri to explore the subjects of generation gap, broken homes, young and wild ambition, all taking place in a piazza. A place where people meet, where the town gathers, and yet nobody ever really knows or understands anyone. That might have been an interesting juxtaposition, rather than a straightforward narrative.   

The book’s dust jacket says, “Whereabouts celebrates ordinary life and community, while exploring existential themes of presence and absence. Lahiri’s narrator, a woman questioning her place in the world, wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties…

An exquisitely nuanced portrait of urban solitude, Whereabouts shimmers with beauty and possibility.”

Existential themes of presence and absence? No, the narrator comes across as a woman who merely flits through each moment, but never lives in it long enough to ponder any existential idea. And urban solitude? A review of this book that I happened to read somewhere likened it to Edward Hopper’s paintings. In paintings, that portrayal of solitude is acceptable, not in a book where the words must take the reader along and where a certain momentum is required. Besides, Hopper’s paintings depict loneliness I thought, and not solitude, if we understand the nuanced distinction between them.

What kind of woman who’s educated, urban, and obviously working, lives this kind of life? No news reaches her from anywhere, nor does she reach out to anybody. Her thoughts don’t travel very far, nothing around her triggers any response or thought or memory either. It’s as if Lahiri has deliberately sought to put the narrator in a hermetically sealed “moment” perpetually. And by doing so, she has denied herself the opportunity of richer storytelling even while in the “whereabout moment” and has deprived the hapless narrator of a lively mind, a heart and a soul.

Jhumpa Lahiri after a talk in Mantova, Italy (September 2013); Image: Carlo Benini CC by SA 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons

In certain chapters like By the Sea and In the Shade, there are at least flashes of the narrator’s thoughts about a certain incident, crystallising into a larger idea that is thought-provoking. In By the Sea, the narrator is at a lunch in a restaurant by the sea to celebrate the baptism of a friend’s daughter. She describes feeling separate from a group of people at the gathering and seeks refuge in the sea below.

“I eat and drink a little wine. I talk with the people seated on either side of me. I explain who I am and how I know my friend and what I do for work. I look at the moody sky above the sea, the blurry horizon where sea and sky meet, the great peace that lies beyond this confusion. I realise that I’m the only one in the room admiring the sea’s splendour at this moment.

…I take my coat, go to the bathroom, then sneak off, heading down to the beach. The restless sea is magnificent. I come upon the remains of the home of an emperor…

From down below the restaurant, brightened by artificial light, seems like an aquarium full of people…

By now I’m not the only one on the beach. A number of the kids have also fled from that glass cube. They run along the shore, shouting out and throwing stones. They hide in the grottoes, among the enduring traces of an uninhabited villa.

Outside, there’s a ferocious noise, coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.“

In later chapters, the writing is much easier and Lahiri’s thoughts flow much better. But not enough to save the book, I am afraid. I am not sure what the author was intending to communicate through Whereabouts, but from my attempts to read between the lines, it appears to be about the narrator woman feeling unsure about her place in the unnamed city, or perhaps they are different cities. About self-doubt, a certain vulnerability, about isolation and being alone. Towards the end of the book, I was quite sure it isn’t even about solitude or loneliness.

In a chapter called Upon Waking, the narrator describes the morning that she has to leave the city for another, for a while.

“… The city doesn’t lend me a shoulder today. Maybe it knows I’m about to leave. The sun’s dull disk defeats me; the dense sky is the same one that will carry me away. That vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks. The sky, unlike the sea, never holds on to the people that pass through it. The sky contains nothing of our spirit, it doesn’t care. Always shifting, altering its aspect from one moment to the next, it can’t be defined.

This morning, I am scared. I am afraid to leave this house, this neighbourhood, this urban cocoon…”

A few paragraphs later, the narrator says:

“I tell myself: a new sky awaits me, even though it’s the same one as this. In some ways it will be quite grand. For an entire year, for example, I won’t have to shop for food, or cook, or do the dishes. I’ll never have to eat dinner by myself.”

One can sense the woman’s apprehension, trepidation even, as she prepares to leave home for a new place. What’s strange is that even as she looks back at the life she is leaving, she doesn’t recall the familiar pleasures of what she’s leaving behind. Nor is there any sense of anticipation and excitement about what might await her in the new city.

At the same time, she compares the sky with the sea while talking of leaving a little of oneself behind. I would have thought that because the sky is always changing and doesn’t try to contain anything of our self, it represents true freedom.   

I am not sure if anything was lost in translation from the original in Italian, but since the translation is Lahiri’s own, I doubt it. The problems are with the construct and the narration. In many chapters and sections, I also sensed the mischief of the circus bosses at Perfect Relations – a PR firm I worked for in Delhi 14 years ago -since they have been meddling with publishers and editors for the past many years. Jhumpa Lahiri couldn’t resist the colour-coded nonsense that has plagued the entire world – and certainly my world – in recent years. If it isn’t purple tights preferred over green, to be worn under a skirt, then it’s plastic red and black earrings. However incidental they might be to the narrator’s story, they didn’t escape my notice.

Some years ago, I read a piece of Lahiri’s in The New York Review of Books which was meant to be an introduction to a novel, though it read like a review. It was replete with colour-based judgements – especially some prejudiced nonsense about grey – though I shared it at The Whistle Library on my blog, for my subscribers to read.

In that sense, it’s not surprising that Whereabouts is a disappointing read. I immensely enjoyed reading Lahiri’s first two books – Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake – but she hasn’t been able to touch those heights again. The Lowland was a terrible low, and it might be for the same reasons of meddling and motivated mischief.

One hopes she will resist such temptations in future.      

The featured image at the start of this post is of the town of Vermazza, Cinque Terre, Italy by Matthew Deblieu on Unsplash

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