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Whereabouts Jhumpa Lahiri

A fascinating shift

Linguists tell us that language isn’t learned, it grows naturally, like our bodies. To swap one’s native language for a new one seems therefore, if not inconceivable, certainly as difficult and risky an ordeal as a heart transplant.

Incredibly, some writers do just that. But it’s always the same clique of grands hommes who spring to mind: Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett. Never Chinua Achebe, never RK Narayan – the black or Asian writer is simply expected to adopt English.

It’s against this background that the Bengali-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri has renounced the language in which her silky-smooth sentences once won a Pulitzer prize. Whereabouts was composed in Italian, like the essays comprising her last book, In Other Words. It has been translated into English by the author herself; indeed, the only English sentences Lahiri now writes are translated from Italian.

This intriguing novel portrays the lonely existence, in an unnamed place, of an unnamed narrator. We know she’s a woman and, in a rare concession to biographical detail, a university teacher, in her mid-40s. She has virtually no family, no relationship, just friends, who are also nameless and thinly characterised, with an element of projection: a married neighbour is, to her mind, ready to have an affair with her, while a female friend must, she imagines, be bored of marriage.

Where her English thrived on the particular, Lahiri’s Italian reaches for the universal. Astonishingly, Whereabouts contains not a single proper noun: nothing to identify individuals or places. Yet with a burst of adjectives, it manages to nail the experience of all of us wading through liquid modernity: “disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed”. When Lahiri likens a hotel to “a parking garage designed for human beings” – applicable to the business district of any contemporary city worldwide – the image seems emblematic of the universalist vision now shaping her writing.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

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