Born in London to Bengali parents, who moved to Long Island when she was three, Jhumpa Lahiri began her writing career with short stories, often autobiographical, concerning people torn between two cultures, never quite at home in the language of their immigrant parents but uneasy in the relaxed American ways of friendships and relationships. ‘I write on the margins,’ Lahiri has said, ‘just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures.’ She originally wrote in English and was quickly recognised as a writer to be reckoned with. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her first collection of stories and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013 for her second novel. In 2011, she moved to Rome, having fallen in love with the Italian language and decided that she must learn it. She started a journal in Italian, hesitantly to begin with, but then more confidently. She found that in Italian she was a ‘tougher, freer writer’. She wrote short stories and then embarked on Whereabouts, first published in Italian in 2018 and now translated by Lahiri herself into clear, uncluttered English. It is very personal and completely absorbing, despite the fact that there is no plot to speak of, no exposition, no crisis and no substantial development. No one is given a name, and the ‘run-down city’ the narrator moves through could be any in Italy.
Many of Lahiri’s characters live essentially solitary lives, and the narrator in Whereabouts is no different. ‘Solitude’, she tells us, has ‘become my trade … it’s a condition I try to perfect.’ At the university where she teaches, she feels ‘peripheral’. There’s ‘a man I might have been involved with’,