Monday 11 May 2009

'As ordinary as it all appears...'

Interpreter Of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of those names that I often see on prize nomination lists and best of the year compilations. In fact it was only this awareness of her that lead me to include her in my own selection on KFC's National Book Award contest. When I rather luckily won I asked Kevin to recommend some titles to me and he spotted that Lahiri was absent from my author list and that her first collection would be a great place to start. It's difficult to know how to add anything about a book which has already been so well covered and indeed comes with four pages of positive reviews pasted into the front of it, but I'll give it a go.

The opening story, 'A Temporary Matter', is cut from the same cloth as Carver. A young couple forced into candlelit dinners by a few days of power cuts are encouraged by the safety of that darkness to pull apart their relationship, engaging in a game of confession. A traumatic event has been the catalyst towards the breakdown of their relationship and that same event provides the secret which is laid devastatingly on the table, like a cruel trump-card in the stories bitter climax. The story is dotted with symbols like the jars of food preserved by Shoba which had once stood as a testament to their bounty but now, as they work their way through them, serve only to show the dwindling stock of their relationship.

Many of her stories deal with Indians now living in the US, and she is very good at showing those tastes, smells and colours that connect them back to home. In 'When Mr Pirzada Came To Dine' the title character is from Dacca (then part of Pakistan but to become Bangladesh after the civil war which is happening during the story) where his family still remain. Each evening he comes to dine and watch the news and our narrator who was ten at the time is unsettled by the totem which connects him to his family. A pocket watch, dutifully wound each evening and placed on the table, set to the time in Dacca, - 'an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first.'

In another story it is exactly that which is not Indian which forces a husband to realise how little control he has on his life and especially his wife. When Sanjeev and Twinkle move into 'This Blessed House' she begins to find Christian ornaments hidden away all over it. Much to his annoyance these mount up into quite a display which he finds embarrrassing when they host a housewarming party. There is a brilliant moment during a rare moment of quiet when his guests are with Twinkle in the loft of their house, searching for more Christian paraphenalia. As they stumble around up there he realises,

'With one flick of his hand he could snap the ladder back on its spring into the ceiling, and they would have no way of getting down unless he were to pull the chain and let them. He thought of all the things he could do, undisturbed.'

In general terms there are a couple of things that stand out in this collection. The first is that it doesn't contain any of the attention grabbing tricks that you might expect in a writer's first collection. Despite it having being described in the New York Times as a 'precocious début', what is remarkable is the maturity of the writing. Lahiri has the confidence to write with elegance and restraint where others may have been tempted to cram it full of colour and exoticism. What she does manage to cram in is detail of character and history.

In the title story the interpreter is Mr Kapasi, acting as driver for a holidaying family on a trip to the Sun Temple and behaving with more dignity than any of them. He notices immediately their immaturity: 'They were all like siblings...Mr and Mrs Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents. It seemed that they were in charge of the children only for the day'. He works as an interpreter for a doctor, a job which his own wife finds shameful so he is flattered by the interest shown by Mrs. Das only to find that she has selfish motives when she confesses that her husband is not the father of one of her sons. 'Mr Kapasi felt insulted that Mrs. Das should ask him to interpret her common, trivial little secret.' What one manages to pick up from the rest of the story is a detailed history of Mr Kapasi, his marriage, their losses, his hopes and ambitions. Lahiri than rounds things off with a surprising climax, something of a motif in this collection - but not the kind of plot-turning twist so prevalent in a lot of short fiction but something genuinely surprising and perhaps enlightening.

The standout story for me was Sexy - a brilliant dissection of adultery in a surprising setting. Miranda, who has been conducting an affair of her own, babysits the son of her friend's cousin. Their family has been in crisis after the husband met a woman on a plane and never returned home. The brilliance is to have the revelations filtered through Miranda's conversation with Rohin, the young boy, not only shining a light on his family discord but on Miranda's own situation and showing just who adultery affects, and how. When he asks her to put on a cocktail dress which she had bought to impress her lover but which now languishes on the floor of her closet he calls her sexy.

"What does it mean?"
"That word. 'Sexy.' What does it mean?"
He looked down, suddenly shy. "I can't tell you."
"Why not?"
"It's a secret." he pressed his lips together, so hard that a bit of them went white.
"Tell me the secret. I want to know."
Rohin sat on the bed, beside Miranda and began to kick the edge of the mattress with the backs of his shoes. He giggled nervously, his thin body flinching as if it were being tickled.
"Tell me," Miranda demanded. She leaned over and gripped his ankles, holding his feet still.
Rohin looked at her, his eyes like slits. He struggled to kick the mattress again, but Miranda pressed against him. He fell back on the bed, his back straight as a board. He cupped his hands around his mouth, and then whispered, "It means loving someone you don't know."
There's some brilliant description there: the mattress kicking, the nervous laughter, that board-straight back; all of which shows how young this holder of knowledge is.

The final story, 'The Third And Final Continent', is almost bursting with character history and manages to pinpoint what is so appealing about her writing in its summation. For those moving from one country to another, finding new cultures and experience there is genuine wonder to be found in the most ordinary of things and it is that which Lahiri is so adept at articulating.

I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewilered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.


Anonymous,  11 May 2009 at 19:03  

Excellent review, Will, and I do appreciate being reminded about these stories since it is some time since I read them. I also find it intriguing that while initially I didn't like her second volume, Unaccustomed Earth as well as this book, it is moving up the "memory" rating.

Anonymous,  14 May 2009 at 09:47  

I didn't much like this book. It's probably because I'm not overly enthusiastic about short story collections generally.

There's just something a little contrived about the setups. There's rarely a sense that you're being given an insight into real lives as they are lived. Real lives aren't carved neatly into chapters with beginnings, middles, ends, and morals.

When short stories really work for me it's usually because the author has realized this problem and has avoided making the stories too neat. But Lahiri's are very neat.

William Rycroft 14 May 2009 at 20:57  

I really wasn't into short stories at all until I began to read some of the better practitioners recently. Chekhov, Carver and Cheever have all repayed handsomely as has Tobias Wolff. Some great short stories are like snapshots, some pick important moments from a larger time-frame, most have moments that alter your perception of what has come before. I do know what you mean about neatness and contrivance but often in this collection the beginning, middle and end don't come from something happening in the narrative but are picked out from the character's personal history i.e something happening now reminds them of something from their past which explains to us the reason why they then act as they do (how bad an explanation is that?! - I hope you get what I mean) The contrivance of the power cut in the first story is exactly what makes it work for me weirdly.

If short stories don't work for you I really recommend reading some of the better ones. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a slim collection from Carver filled with gems and Tobias Wolff's recent Our Story Begins contains some of his classics as well as some new stories. My review of Carver is here and Wolff here.

If you want something that really isn't neat but a little strange then Something You Should Know by A.M.Homes and No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July might be more to your taste.

John Self 17 May 2009 at 09:34  

I agree with Jonathan's (underthought's) response to many stories, but the same could be said of most novels. As William suggests, the key is to read the best. Although I'm not an uncritical fan of his, Richard Ford's stories (particularly in A Multitude of Sins) do give the sense of being episodes stripped almost randomly from continuing life, and don't have an artificial separateness.

Let me offer advance notice too (well, not advance as the book came out last month, but advance in that I haven't finished it yet and may be about to regret these hasty words) of James Lasdun's collection, It's Beginning to Hurt (which I think is an excellent title). So far, four stories in, it's the best collection I've read since Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins.

Lasdun won the first National Short Story Award for his story 'An Anxious Man', which appears in this collection. You can download the title story, a very short piece of two pages, here.

William Rycroft 17 May 2009 at 10:56  

I keep reading good things about James Lasdun, good to finally read some actual Lasdun, thanks for the link John.

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