Book review: "In Other Words" by Jhumpa Lahiri
Imagine with me packing up your entire family, your entire life, and moving to Rome. How does that fantasy feel? Is it exciting? Terrifying? Fulfilling?
Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, did just that.
Lahiri is enamored by the Italian language. It is odd, as she acutely notes in this quasi-memoir, to be compelled to a language to which she has no familial or geographic ties. Lahiri writes in English and was taught Bengali, the tongue of her Calcutta-born parents, at an early age. Yet, Lahiri feels an extreme compulsion to speak, read and write in Italian.
“In Other Words" details this linguistic journey from her series of trips to Florence and Venice in the 1990s to private lessons with Italian women around the New York City boroughs in the 2000s.
After some time studying, learning and respecting Italian, Lahiri in 2012 took a leap of faith and uprooted her husband and two children to Rome. Her diligent and nearly obsessive learning over the previous two decades — which included reading exclusively in Italian and scrupulously rewriting and memorizing those new words — had only taken her so far. She needed to fully immerse herself in the language.
Lahiri began writing her personal thoughts in Italian the first day she arrived. These writings eventually became the bulk of “In Other Words.”
She describes the process of writing in Italian as both limiting and freeing, since she can only express herself in so many words. She reflects on this sentiment frequently, often through beautiful, earthly metaphors; swimming in a lake, being a child, or wearing a black sweater.
The physical book itself is unlike any I've encountered before. It is a short read, about 230 pages, with Lahiri’s original Italian on the left side and an English translation on the right. Lahiri is not the translator, due to her concern that she might be too tempted to edit the English.
As I read, I found my eyes darting across the pages. I, like Lahiri, felt compelled to learn the Italian word for “shining” (splendente) or “carefree” (spensierato).
In Other Words is refreshingly self-aware. Lahiri is honest and realistic about her metaphysical journey into Italian. It is something she can grasp but never possess. In her own words, Italian "remains a mystery, beloved, impassive ... the unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don't know.”
And yet, she continues in beautiful prose to explain her connection to and distance from this foreign tongue.
“I realized that in spite of the limitations, the horizon is boundless,” she writes. “Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility.”
Lahiri ultimately discovers a new way to express herself. When you are constrained by only so many words and so many tenses, the purpose of your sentences sharpens. You say what you mean, because it is the only way you know how. It may not be perfect. It may be slightly archaic. But, it is truth in its most rudimentary form.