The magnificent short narratives collected in the volume Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri were all translated by the author and Todd Portnowitz, a translation I can only describe as a labour of love: it focuses on sound and rhythm, on rendering the lilting melody of original Italian. And the themes of identity, place, exile, belonging, usually explored by Lahiri are all present in this volume; so readers who enjoyed Interpreters of Maladies or Whereabouts will certainly not be disappointed.
The girl who narrates the opening tale, “The Boundary”, wonders what else the city lady who sits in the garden sees, as she writes her notes, staring at the things I look at every day. The girl’s family owns a property in the countryside which they rent out, usually during the summer months. The place sounds quite idyllic but readers are made to feel a stark contrast between the enchantment that envelops the guests and the melancholic sameness experienced by the narrator, who spends identical days in our dilapidated cottage. The liminal glance which the girl casts on the objects she sees every day, now suddenly contemplated through the eyes of the ‘other’, reminds us of Natalia Ginzburg’s female narrators, standing always on a threshold, and therefore able to embrace the world and its opposite.
This first story encapsulates what I consider the most exceptional feature of this collection: the constant movement of the point of view between centre and periphery, city and outskirts, estrangement and familiarity, reality and the uncanny.
We are led to believe that Lahiri’s stories are based in Rome, and our imagination runs to the monumental city, with its vast piazzas, tall yellow and orange buildings, cupolas, and churches. However, as Lahiri warns us at the onset through Livy’s epigraph, already two thousand years ago the city was growing this way and that, building walls and striving to gain new ground.
It is another city, both familiar and full of secrets, that the writer invites us to visit: one in which, as happens in “P’s Parties”, a nomadic population waits around for a big summer party that repeats itself, year in and year out, almost identical, punctuating the passing of time with that combined sense of displacement and longing evoked in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty; a city for people who are looking for a hiding place – from past or current trauma – and end up hiding in plain sight, in a rented accommodation in the middle of Rome (as in “The Procession”) or in the bright council house of “A Well-Lit House” where a white light would bathe our souls while we made love; a city developing vertically as well as horizontally, like in the dazzling story “The Steps”, where a gallery of diverse characters negotiate Rome’s famous hills by climbing up and down a set of steps, admiring the views, leaping over empty bottles and shards of glass, bumping into a group of youths that resembles a bubbling hive or a live current, hanging in the balance between reality and fiction, or narrowly escaping death.
There is a dark side which these stories consistently point to, like an open wound throbbing with a sense of mourning, racist hatred, loneliness and fear. Vicious assaults against foreigners and civilians walking alone are singled out by the writer but shrouded in mystery, like noir fairy-tales. The rejection of ‘otherness’ and foreignness in the city of Rome is understated at times, as in “The Reentry”, where a woman keeps being referred to as la moretta, which could mean ‘brunette’ or ‘dark-skinned’ but could also be used derogatively about non-white people. Readers are left in doubt, unable to grasp the enormity of the woman’s feelings, as we are told that she doesn’t just feel bad and embittered; she’s humiliated, gripped by a sadness she can’t control. Lahiri manages here to convey how trauma caused by microaggressions leaves deeper marks than one can fathom.
The last narrative, “Dante Alighieri”, attempts to provide an answer to the ultimate question as to why humans place a big collective lid over our wounds, our disappointment, our anguish. As we follow the musings of a woman besotted with the uncanny underworld of insects and worms, as well as with the words of two Dantes – the divine poet and her suitor who takes his name – we are led to discover the power of platonic and idealized love, at the crossroads of death and the divine.
Reviewed by Enrica Ferrara
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated from Italian by the author and Todd Portnowitz
Published by Picador (2023)
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Enrica Maria Ferrara is originally from Naples and lives in Dublin where she lectures in Italian Culture and Language at Trinity College. She has written widely about Elena Ferrante, Domenico Starnone and other leading Italian writers.