[Random House; 2023]
Tr. from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest story collection, Roman Stories, the author immerses the reader in the experience of finding yourself in an unfamiliar language, place, and culture. It is Lahiri’s fourth book written in Italian (and translated by Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz) and her first short story collection in the language. With its stylistic omissions—all characters and most of the settings remain nameless—it is similar to her latest novel, Whereabouts, also written in Italian. Yet in subject Roman Stories is a sure descendent of her first books that were written in English and centered around the lives of South Asian immigrants and their children who moved to the States. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Lahiri said, “At bottom, I am continuing to work on the same themes of my first books: I only wanted to change the location and perspective in regards to the stories of Indians who transfer to America like my family.”
By changing the location and language of her stories to Italy and Italian, Lahiri widens the scope of Roman Stories beyond the well-educated immigrants who populated her previous works, The Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. But something else happens through Lahiri’s full-hearted adoption of Italian. As a language, it can be notoriously long-winded, yet Lahiri writes sparely, closer in style to Natalia Ginzburg than her own previous books written in English. Lahiri goes as far as cutting out most proper nouns of narrators, characters, and settings. The effect of such erasure combined with the particularity she confers on place and character replicates for the reader the disorientation of relocation and immigration, where all points of reference become obscured.
The first story of the collection, “The Boundary,” is narrated by the daughter of a foreign caretaker. Her family manages a countryside house for its owner when tourists rent it out. Though countries of origin remain unnamed, Lahiri makes clear that the tourists are Italian and the narrator was born in Italy to foreign parents, most likely from Bangladesh. The dynamics of the boundary between foreigner and native are further complicated by the tourists’ idealistic pleasure with the countryside. As the narrator listens to them praise the wonders of a rural life, she wonders “what they know about the loneliness here.” And by “here,” we can assume she means all of Italy. The narrator’s parents once lived in the city and sold flowers. One night before she was born, her father was assaulted and beaten so badly that he could never talk properly again. Though the narrator doesn’t name it, the assault is a hate crime, the message that her father will never belong beaten onto his body.
On the native side of the divide is comfort and confidence, and on the foreign side, unfamiliarity and unknowing, fear and vulnerability. Yet Lahiri’s “foreigners” are not only those who have moved to Italy to set down roots. She also takes on disoriented Italian characters. “P’s Parties” is narrated by an Italian man who looks forward to annual parties thrown by his wife’s friend P. The narrator is curious about the foreigners at these parties; he has never lived outside Rome and goes on the same vacations every year. His son, on the other hand, has rejected Rome and “our way of life.” He is “the version of me I’d never allowed to form, that I’d neglected, blocked out—a version that, even without having ever existed, had defeated me.” In the story, the narrator lets this version of himself back in and becomes infatuated with one of the foreign women at P’s parties after a chance encounter. The infatuation upends the habitual comfort of his life and marriage.
The one element of Roman Stories that remains steadfast is of course Rome. The title is an homage to Alberto Moravia’s Racconti Romani and highlights Lahiri’s attachment to the city, which she also discusses in numerous interviews since she first moved to Rome in 2011. Though Rome is named in only half the stories and neighborhoods are never named, Lahiri makes clear to anyone familiar with the city where each story takes place—usually to the west of the Tiber. In the interview with La Repubblica, Lahiri said, “I’m very interested in those who move here and seek to root themselves.”
In the long, central story “The Steps,” Lahiri explores this interest most thoroughly. The story is broken into short chapters that are named after the main characters’ identities—such as “Two Brothers,” “The Widow,” “The Expat Wife”—and feature the titular steps. Though never named, the steps are the Scalea del Tamburino that connect Trastevere to Monteverde. The foreign mother of the first chapter observes, “The steps of this city, though made of stone, are something like the sea, where everything washes back, eventually.” Young people hang out on them all night and leave their bottles and cigarette stubs and threaten the Italian widow of the second chapter. The two brothers of the fifth chapter sit on the top of the steps and remember the year their parents had brought them to Rome as children. During that year, their now-deceased father fell in love with an Italian man, causing the two brothers to visit Italy. Each character’s Roman sea is quite different, but the similarity remains: Each has been tossed up on its shore.
The characters of Roman Stories experience displacement along with a sense of grounding. The collection opens with two epigraphs: one from Livy and one from Ovid. Ancient history is layered below the sampietrini that are laid into Rome’s roads by human hands. And though Lahiri’s stories do not drift much into the city’s history (she only mentions medieval basilicas and ancient amphitheaters), it is always visible on the surface, a palimpsest of foreign and native, known and unknown, contemporary and ancient. Rome is the one named character in the collection, where the unnamed seek to establish their roots as they have for millennia.
Amber Ruth Paulen is a writer and educator living in rural Michigan. She earned her MFA in fiction at Columbia University and is currently writing a multi-generational novel-in-stories. www.amberpaulen.com.
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