(2016) The Year in Books – Interpreter of Maladies


Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies

This is another in a long line of ridiculously lucky ‘picked off a bookshop shelf on a whim’ choices – a process that’s introduced me to at least a dozen amazing authors and only ever given me one actual dud (Oe Kenzaburo’s absolutely terrible The Changeling, in case you’re looking for recommendations of books to definitely not read). I’m a little embarrassed to say I’d never even heard of Jhumpa Lahiri before, but after reading Interpreter of Maladies and her similarly impressive novel The Lowland, I’m excited to explore the rest of her bibliography.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that largely concerns itself with the lives of Indian-Americans, sometimes first, sometimes second generation, with a handful of stories set in India itself. Now, as a well-establish, dyed in the wool white boy, albeit one with ‘heritage’ outside the UK*, I obviously don’t see a great deal here that’s directly relatable to my own experiences. But despite an instantaneous knee-jerk reaction against any media that doesn’t feature someone almost exactly like me in the starring role, I quickly fell in love with Interpreter of Maladies, as it manages to do what only the best literature can do – show us a deep, universal emotional truth we recognise in a life we don’t.

On a smaller scale, Lahirir’s moment to moment writing is consistently sharp and understated, and she shows a genuine, thoughtful insight into the complexities of her characters. Every story in this collection is special, but here are some of my favourites:

‘Mrs. Sen’s’ focuses on the suffocating sense of isolation that comes from packing up and moving one’s entire life to somewhere completely new and alien. In its titular character we see what happens when someone isn’t given the means to integrate into a new culture, as well as how the prospect of integration can itself come to seem suffocating in its own way.

‘Interpreter of Maladies’ follows a family of Indian-Americans visiting India on vacation, exploring how children of immigrants can be purportedly part of a culture yet have nothing to do with it whatsoever. And as well as this – how we can sometimes convince ourselves we have such a strong connection with someone; know someone so well and imagine the arc of our joined lives, only to be jarred back into the knowledge that we have nothing whatsoever to do with them.

Finally, ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine’ follows a Pakistani professor working in the US on a research grant while his family remains back home in the buildup to the Bangladesh Liberation War. In it we see the pain of being separated from one’s family and one’s culture, especially when looking on in safety far away in a time of crisis, and the comfort a shared culture can bring after so long isolated from one’s home.

I figured I should put something here to avoid this post from just trailing off, but I don’t really have anything else to say except to reiterate that you should read Interpreter of Maladies. It’s a genuinely great book. It even won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so you don’t even have to trust my notoriously unreliable opinions, and instead can trust those of much smarter people – people with degrees in literature and double-barrelled surnames and finely manicured side-partings, probably.

* (I don’t think any white person has ever felt comfortable using the word ‘heritage’ when talking about themselves without adding quotation marks)


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