Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

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I became a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri in 2008 when I read Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies. Sometime later she learned Italian and has translated at least one book from Italian to English and writes in Italian which was the case for this book of short stories. I believe my reservations about Ties, the book she translated, were not the result of shortcomings of the translation.

I always find it difficult to record what I want to remember in the case of short stories, but here goes. These stories only occasionally mention Rome specifically as the location, and in some cases Rome is not the setting. In many cases the main character is an immigrant, but is described vaguely, for example, “born on another continent.”

In one story, “P’s Parties” the guests were described as falling into two distinct groups, “Like two opposing currents that criss-cross in the ocean, forming a perfectly symmetrical shape, only to cancel each other out a moment later. On one side there were those like me and my wife, old friends of P and her husband who came every year, and on the other our counterparts: ¬†foreigners who’d show up for a few years, or sometimes just once.” Such an intriguing description. Roman residents and their connection to this person’s annual parties out in the countryside did fit the bill of a “Roman Story.”

Another had a setting in Rome along a stairway, describing the inhabitants of apartments that opened onto the stairway. I pictured the Spanish Steps, though that surely was not the location, though there were references to tourists along the stairway. We see a moment in time in the variety of people who lived along the stairway.

“The Procession” is told from the point of view of a woman whose parents immigrated to the US (from India?) when they was young. When she was studying in Rome, she fell in love with an older man and gave up her studies for the married life with him. She spoke movingly of her parents-in-law:

After those two-course Sunday feasts we would skip dinner–an herbal tea was enough, maybe a piece of fruit before going to bed, I with a combination of lightness and satisfaction I’d never felt before and have never felt since, even though, at my in-laws’ table, enveloped in that tranquil sense of delight, I was quietly so thrilled that I feared I was on the edge between life and death.

Many years later she has an independent life and travels between her teaching positions in Rome and the US, connected to both, committed to neither.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Roman Stories, trans. by Jhumpa Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz,  Alfred A. Knopf, 2023, 204 pages. Available in the public library.

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