Friday, January 27, 2006

Book Notes: "The Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri

This 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri is really quite lovely.

Yes, I said "quite lovely".

There's really no better way to describe it. Lahiri's excellent prose reflects a serene, charming storyteller. She is patient and at ease, living at a speed that is different from what we're used to. The pacing, style, and quality of her writing conveys the timing and rhythm of the lives of her characters.

The stories focus on different aspects of Indian and Bengali immigrants either living in the United States or returning to their homeland. Every character is utterly real and impressively nuanced. She does not shy away from flaws or weaknesses, and yet she never seems to preach. She reveals situations, lets the stories unfold naturally, and doesn't interject with judgment or moralization.

And the tales she tells are just lovely. Beautifully captured portraits of real people in real situations. Real pain, real confusion, real conflict are brought to life. The characters and stories are immediately accessible and utterly enjoyable. There is no cultural barrier here, not when Lahiri is our interpreter.

What I found most interesting is that she uses so many different facets of the Indian and Bengali experience. Americans tend to group foriegners - or people who just look foriegn - together and assume they're largely all the same. To be certain they may share a particular cultural background, customs, and habits, but Lahiri offers such a wide variety - from the recent immigrant struggling in loneliness in the US to the insufferable second-generation Indians touring India in typical Western ignorance - that one can't help but appreciate the complexities and differences amongst this one cultural group.

And what makes the collection so excellent is that this illumniation of the various facets of Indian/Bengali culture creates an entirely human portrait. Each character has habits or mannerisms that are foriegn to Westerners and yet their undeniable humanity emerges every time. We are introduced to and fascinated by their customs but we immediately understand and empathize with their deeply felt emotions. That Lahiri has the wisdom and maturity to allow her people flaws and weaknesses makes the work all the more convincing.

So it is a fascinating mix of presenting a world we do not understand (which, in most of the stories, is in turn struggling to understand us) and at the same time communicating across cultures, showing just how similar we are after all.

Excellent, excellent work and highly recommended. Each short story only takes about half an hour to read so really there's no excuse. And there isn't a weak story in the bunch.

Quite lovely.


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