Friday, March 5, 2010

The Reading List: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, 1999.

Interpreter of Maladies is the second book by Jhumpa Lahiri that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Well, I didn't literally "read" the first -- Unaccustomed Earth -- but rather listened to it on my mp3 player, like I do with a lot of books. It had been strongly recommended to me by my friend Santha, and I ripped it from a library book-on-CD without paying any attention to the cover. It began in an ordinary enough fashion, introducing a cast of characters, a situation, and a prevailing mood. Then, the second chapter introduced a whole new set of characters who seemed to be occupying a different timeframe and situation, but this is not unusual in a novel. But then the third chapter, too, seemed to start things afresh, and I was beginning to boggle at how much the author was asking me to remember and by trying to imagine the convoluted plot structure she was going to have to use to start tying all these situations together.

Well, I don’t read short fiction a lot, so it wasn’t until the fourth “chapter” once again introduced a whole new scenario that I caught on. Unaccustomed Earth is a book of ~short stories~, thematically linked but, except for one pairing, each independent of the other. Oops.

This time I wasn’t fooled. I started reading Interpreter of Maladies fully aware that I was reading a book of short stories! And, having eventually found Unaccustomed Earth to be an excellent book of short stories, I set a high bar for Interpreter of Maladies. Happily, I was not disappointed.

The stories in Interpreter, which is actually the older book, cover the same themes as those in Unaccustomed Earth: the experiences of first- and second- generation Indian immigrants to the United States. Lahiri is writing what she knows, but also with a rare perception and deftness of touch that captures not only the specifics of her subject matter but also its human universals. She gives us an insider’s perspective of what it is like to live within an immigrant subculture, and certainly shares a lot of experiential detail about the texture of Indian-American life. Yet these are not narrowly drawn stories. Everybody feels like an outsider now and again during their life, and most of us also feel some measure of conflict between the pull of parental tradition and the push of a younger generation adopting new ways of life. At some level, we all share the state of cultural flux and uncertainty that Lahiri’s characters live in.

Lahiri is a lovely prose stylist, with a language that is serious and sober yet compelling enough to keep you reading just-one-more-story until well after your bedtime. Often the stories are sad, but there is also humor in the details. Too, these are generally stories about small things --memories of seasons from childhood, inconclusive attempts to mend broken relationships, conflicts between the residents of an apartment building. This renders them quieter than the grand adventures related in most novels, regardless of genre or tone. But they are also more intimate than most fiction, and more directly related to real life, which after all generally flows by in a parade of small stories.

Two of the pieces in Interpreter of Maladies, “A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” take place entirely in India. They are not bad, by any means, but they are a little out of place; Lahiri is really at her best when writing about people out of cultural context, thousands of miles from home or one generation from the familial homeland. “This Blessed House,” a story of an arranged marriage faltering from the couple’s mismatched personalities, may be familiar to first-time readers; I know I’ve heard it read before, probably on This American Life or something like that.

It is of course completely irrelevant, and indeed both condescending and sexist, to mention that Jhumpa Lahiri is an almost unbelievably beautiful human being. Yet since Santha mentioned this when recommending the book to me, it seems somehow needful that I mention it in turn to you here and now, as I in turn recommend her collection – both collections, actually – of exquisitely crafted short stories to you.


Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I had not heard of this author, and am heading over to the MultCoLib website immediately.

Santha said...

I feel a little bit more famous today, thanks to you. I also feel inspired to read Interpreter.

Jenners said...

I just finished reading this today!!! And Jhumpa is totally gorgeous! I mentioned it in my giveway of "Unaccustomed Earth." To have her talent and her looks -- it just isn't right.

I loved this book, but I think I lean toward "Unaccustomed Earth" more. (But only in the sense that I choose one beautiful jewel over another almost as beautiful jewel.) Lahiri has the stuff. And I agree with you: I thought the stories set fully in India were a bit weaker; almost more like folk stories in a way.

Great review. You captured just what I love about her. And it cracks me up to no end that you thought "Unaccustomed Earth' was a novel. I couldn't imagine trying to make sense of it!!!

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Will she come over to my house and read the stories to me? Naked?

margaret said...

I'd totally make out with her.