Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Anche tu, Jhumpa? (Jhumpa Lahiri loves Italy)

Jhumpa Lahiri has somehow read my thoughts – and my diary. Yikes! 

She doesn’t just love Italy. She lurves it. Like me. The Pulitzer Prize winning author has taken the almost unprecedented step of ceasing to write in English, the language of the works that catapulted her to success, and instead has begun a new literary career in Italian. She does so because, as she’s admitted in many interviews, she’s become obsessed with Italian, and feels almost ill whenever she must be away from Italy.

O, guarda, Jhumpa, anch’io. Me, too. I’ve already confessed as much in an essay published last year on Catapult. I think crying over Italy after you drop your son off at daycare qualifies as some kind of illness. Who knew I had such august company?

Today’s the official launch day for her new memoir, In Other Words, written in English and Italian (or rather I should say, written in Italian, her Italian, and then translated into English). I don’t have my copy yet but I’m reading an excerpt of it in the Italian literary magazine Nuovi Argomenti, and that’s just fine with me. I’m not sure I really need to read the English version, right?

Nonetheless, certain words from Ann Goldstein’s translation stand out. In The New Yorker excerpt of the work, Lahiri says she “felt a sense of rapture” in Rome. Yep, rapture, check.

Here’s what she’s in for the rest of her life:

When I returned briefly to Rome last year, I quickly realized I had paid for the Nostalgia Tour. 

I spent five days retracing my steps. I stumbled into a tiny piazza and stumbled back nearly 20 years to a weekend getaway to the Eternal City – my first with my partner. I looked up at the street sign – Piazza San Pantaleo – and my mind, photographic for things like street names and addresses and the dates important moments happened – recalled instantly that we had stayed maybe two nights at a small pensione on the piazza. Two nights or a lifetime.

I revisited old stomping grounds like Campo dei Fiori and the Pantheon, taking the temperature of the city. Eavesdropping on conversations, watching the interactions between the barista and the regulars at the coffee bar. Listening along with the taxi driver to the Juventus game on the radio, and returning his smile in the rear view mirror as he pumped his fist over the key goal. Looking in the shop windows, including the pharmacy, hoping to find the house shoes I used to wear when I lived in Italy. 

Observing with a loving glance Italian children, shouting out commands and observations to their mothers while they lick gelato and haul their heavy backpacks home from school (“Oh! Mamma! Vieni qui!”)

Then returning from Italy and your mind is already bifurcated, split down the middle between Italian and English. Forever translating. Get used to it (she probably already has).

She’ll forever be tethered to Italy. Wishing she was “there” while failing to make the most of her time “here.” A creative tension, to be sure, but one full of heartache.

Rapture, indeed, Jhumpa. We’re in for it.

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