Speed read the latest by the author who has become the pall bearer of stories that address alienation, identity, cultural vacuum of immigrants and itinerant travelers. A breezy expostulation on her journey towards discovering, flirting, understanding, devouring and mastering a new language to experience that sense of detachment, that sense of anchorless meandering that leaves you searching for words. Languages are brilliant constructs to put structure to our thoughts. Their evolution, over the 5000 years they have been in written existence, and possible 10,000 years of spoken verbiage is testament to their unique ability to enable us humans to be the winner of the small world we call home. Both the continuous and the discontinuous theories of language origination in humans continue to hold ground on how it is that languages surfaced within homo sapiens.
Getting back to the book, some passages evoke that distinctive touch Lahiri has increasingly associated herself to – the loss of identity and the foundation you take for granted in geographic and time dimensions that are your own but fall apart as soon as you put yourself out of it. Getting out of your comfort zone to experience the freshness of perspective that a new language forces upon you. In a sense, the writer is experimenting with herself as her subject – as an entrepreneur who enters a failing company to understand what failure is.
As the NYTimes review puts it best, I am going to replicate that here: “That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing. If only literature worked that way.” In short, the book is too much of an exercise in writing for the author to be of any value to the reader. There are some nuggets from the author’s own struggle with her origins as a Bengali Indian and as an author writing in English. The tenacious hold that her mother has on her own culture through steadfastly refusing to change with the adopted country. The bigger your cultural baggage, the harder it is for you to adopt a new one. Factors of age, of enthusiasm, of context and of pedigree do influence to some extent.
IN OTHER WORDS By Jhumpa Lahiri 256 pp. Knopf. $16