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  Books   17 Dec 2023  Book Review | Roman lives curiously radiate that sinking feeling

Book Review | Roman lives curiously radiate that sinking feeling

Published : Dec 17, 2023, 2:17 am IST
Updated : Dec 17, 2023, 2:17 am IST

Jhumpa Lahiri is an acquired taste

Coverpage of 'Roman Stories'.
 Coverpage of 'Roman Stories'.

If you’re a fan of short stories, then you perhaps were blooded on Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry. The deceptive innocence of the start led you to a twist in the tale which left you heartbroken or disturbed and sometime laughing. Roald Dahl, for example, specialized in provoking disturbed laughter in his short stories for adults. De Maupassant left you pondering on the vagaries of human nature. O. Henry straight out tugged on your heartstrings.

And then there is this book. Jhumpa Lahiri is an acquired taste. And highly divisive as it turns out. For some, she is a writer supreme. Indeed, she has the accolades to prove it. And an acclaimed, successful film made from one of her novels. For others, well, there is an ennui in her writing which just leads to ennui in the reader. When I say others, I really mean myself.

I can understand the need to break the old mould of the short story. It can easily be predictable, trite and shmaltzy. There are only so many times you can read variations of ‘The Gift of the Magi’ and still be moved. But is the answer to read about ‘P’s Parties’, which describes the minutiae of the social lives of those who have interesting social lives to the extent that a tiny bit of illegal longing is stretched out so long that you are left torn between disinterest and rushing through the words to find out if anything happens?

Lahiri has words. There is no doubt about that. She sets a scene. No doubt about that either. She sketches out a character or two. No doubt…

It is what happens after that, that is when you choose your side of the abyss. The stories are usually in the first person. Or in the passive voice. The characters don’t have names. These are peeks into their lives. The irritated staff at a guest house. The faithful husband who fell in love with a foreigner. The delivery of a parcel. It could be anything. But the story is in the incredible detail. The light, the scenery, urban or country, the conversations, important or desultory. It takes ages, though, for anything to happen.

Or perhaps I am looking at the whole thing the wrong way around. The English version is a translation from the Italian, by the author herself. That is impressive. Lahiri being fluent in Italian, fluent enough to write Roman Stories about Italians living in Italy. And then being talented enough to translate into English. Given that the author is proficient in English, which is the language of most of her works, some of the expected wonder is lost in translation.

If J.M. Coetzee was the master of using as few words as possible to say a lot, Lahiri works wonders at the opposite. Like all things, this particular style is a matter of taste. What is tedious to one person is magical story-telling to another. To some, the journey is the story and that you never reach an end or that the end is inconsequential is in itself a mastery of the imagination.

At best, and with much less skill at my disposal, the best I can describe Roman Stories is from my own experience. There is a certain feeling of longing, distress and boredom that long afternoons in a Calcutta summer bring upon you. The sun sets early because you are in eastern India. Dusk brings godhuli, the romantic moment when the cows raise dust as they come home, just as night falls. Godhuli is when you want to write poetry and listen to sad songs. The hours before godhuli is when you swat flies and try to fight that sense of lethargy that threatens to overwhelm. You have just woken up from what Bengalis call the “bhaater ghoom” the deep sleep after a lunch heavy with too much rice. Your mind is fuzzy. The day is about to end, a sadness comes over you and you want to escape.

This is where Roman Stories brought me. Some part of my life I thought I had escaped from. Perhaps that in itself is the sign of a giant talent. I leave that to the reader to decide.

Roman Stories
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated with Todd Portnowitz
Hamish Hamilton
pp. 204, Rs 499

Tags: jhumpa lahiri, book review, book review 2023