After World War II, Ireland's Samuel Beckett began writing some works in French and then translating them into English. Swapping his mother tongue for his adopted language allowed him to "write without style." Out went the puns and other linguistic trickery; in came spare, stripped-back writing that offered both clarity and ambiguity.
After the publication of her 2013 novel "The Lowland," Jhumpa Lahiri stopped writing in English and turned to Italian. In her collection of essays from last year, "Translating Myself and Others," Lahiri explained that she writes in Italian to "feel free." That freedom helped produce "Whereabouts," her remarkable third novel. After writing it — leanly, without obvious style — in Italian, Lahiri translated it into English.
The Bengali American's latest work to be translated from Italian (by Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz) is "Roman Stories," nine tales about people and their struggles in the Eternal City. Lahiri keeps identities under wraps: Rome is rarely mentioned and characters are never named. The cast is largely made up of outsiders with "darker complexions," enabling the Pulitzer Prize winner (for "Interpreter of Maladies") to artfully explore themes of belonging, displacement, acceptance and intolerance.
In one story, a woman takes a job at a school and receives anonymous notes telling her she is unliked, unclean and unwelcome. "We don't want you to stay here," reads the last message. Instead of tracking down the culprit, the woman comes up with a novel way of getting rid of the notes. In another tale, two women meet for lunch at a trattoria. When the darker of the two is humiliated by the owner's daughter, it ruins the occasion and alters the friendship.
Other characters are wounded not with words but brute force. In "The Boundary," a depiction of a family's peaceful vacation at a guesthouse in the idyllic countryside is interrupted by a flashback to a night in Rome when the caretaker of the property, a "foreigner," learned the hard way that the city can be a hostile environment. In "The Delivery," a woman from another country is shot so many times with an air gun that the X-rayed pellets in her body resemble "a series of lights in a town from a hilltop at night."
Elsewhere, a writer attends a series of parties, pays close attention to the guests/"my potential fictional characters" and ends up being captivated by one of them. A woman at a funeral muses on the course of her life. And a couple rent an apartment that evokes past pain.
Again and again, Lahiri takes her reader off the tourist trail and into everyday lives — not least in the centerpiece story "The Steps," six vignettes about diverse individuals linked by a staircase in their neighborhood. This is a masterful collection in which Lahiri brilliantly delineates her characters' triumphs and trials, illuminating the way "Rome switches between heaven and hell."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Jhumpa Lahiri.
Publisher: Knopf, 224 pages, $27.