Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Where they show each other scars

In this humid, rusty place where women congregate, naked and wet, where they show each other scars beside their breasts and on the bellies, the bruises on their thighs, the imperfections on their backs, they all talk about misfortune. They complain about husbands, children, aging parents. They confess things without feeling guilty.

As I take in these losses, these tragedies, it occurs to me that the water in the pool isn't so clear after all. It reeks of grief, of heartache. It's contaminated. And after I get out I'm saturated by a vague sense of dread. All that suffering doesn't leak out like the water that travels into my ear now and then. It burrows into my soul, it wedges itself into every nook of my body.

— from Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I was traveling to see an old friend, and it was important for me to have some token of a gift for her, and it seemed appropriate to bring her (not for the first time) a book.

And suddenly I felt the weight of this responsibility. It should be meaningful and beautiful. One title sprang to mind immediately, but it required a special order, for which I didn't have enough time. I recalled something else, something lovely I'd read last year, and went out to buy a copy. I had it in my hands and opened it up at the beginning and realized how very wrong it was. In essence it might be perfect, but I also saw how the style could be off-putting and my friend would never read past the first page.

I always associate this friend with la dolce vita and Italian things. We met when she was late for school. Her dorm room was empty for a week, maybe two, as she had yet to return from Italy, having spent the summer term there. Rumours about her grew. She was a legend before we ever laid eyes on her. And when she arrived, she made an entrance. She looked Italian, spoke Italian, exuded an Italian fashion sensibility and an Italian passion. I think she wanted to be Italian. I think I wanted to be her.

Standing there in the bookshop I ran through a mental inventory of appropriate Italian literature, beyond what we'd already shared between us. My recent discoveries left me only with Moravia and Starnone, which while relevant to me, might not make sense to her, and could even be emotional landmines.

And so I landed on Jhumpa Lahiri, Starnone's translator, who shifted to writing in her non-primary language. But how do you gift a book you haven't read? (I'd read The Namesake and was lukewarm about it.) I had the length of the train ride to assess it. I could always change my mind.

It reads swiftly. It's meditative, a bit restless, a bit lonely. But it resonates, describing a period in the narrator's life that seemed to reflect my changing relationships with friends, family, work, lovers, myself. I believe my friend would see herself in it too.

One review eviscerates it, perceiving it to be a book of depression and despair. Clearly the reviewer has no understanding of what it is to be a woman of a certain age, where it is still the case that we spend a good deal of our life living for others, not ourselves. 

In a New York Times article, a critic asks, what did a Bengali-American find so liberating, so regenerating, in Rome and the Italian language? "Joy."

LARB: Familiar Strangers
The Rumpus: To Start Again in a Different Place

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