Thursday, March 17, 2011

our names and history must be dear to us

Purchased because, aside from the quaint cover that looks really good with the rest of its kin (there is Woolf’s or Foer’s or Orwell’s to buy next), Jhumpa Lahiri had been racking up my system every time I passed by a bookstore, which was every day. The first part of the two-in-one book is the anthology, “Interpreter of Maladies.” Hands down. Let me just say that this is sitting now next to my favorite short story collections such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Namesake” Rosario Cruz Lucero’s “Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros,” and Frederick Barthelme’s “The Law of Averages.” Clearly, the styles differ from each other—OK, maybe except for the first two which are almost alike, for the lack of better word—but it is in their deft handling of vivid descriptions, history, tradition laced with modern snippets of sentiments both happy and not, make their stories (now especially with Lahiri’s) a cut above the usual short fiction fare.

The stories I thoroughly enjoyed were When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine, A Real Durwan, the book’s title story, and the last, The Third and Final Continent. The former articulates the history of India without burdening it with encyclopedic information, which is something very notable especially when each fact that is presented parallels to the emotions of the characters in the story. Then there’s Interpreter of Maladies, which deserves its right to be on the cover of the book. In such a compact structure, Lahiri manages to bring a story of growth and (should-be-disregarded) obsession that involves a photograph, a scrap of paper, and a whole lot of monkeys. A Real Durwan, on the other hand, is a story about a doorkeeper’s slow descent into madness. Everyone has read a story or two with that plot but it has been a very engaging read even though I find it the most depressing of the lot. That alone is a writer’s accomplishment. It highlights the soft spot in us for people who we always thought are the least of our concerns. The last one, The Third and Final Continent, magnifies how we see age in its supposedly linear movement—are we getting kinder, richer, happier, or is it all the other way around? Other stories are tasty too, but to divulge anything further might lose the potency of the author’s well-layered but accessible insights. It is no wonder the collection has won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and Amy Tan writing about Lahiri “as the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say, Read This!’”

Lahiri’s second work in this book is the novel, “The Namesake.” Ah, this is a tricky one. The whole plot involves a decision, an act done by our protagonist here, affecting one thing after the other—toppling dominoes style. Though the domino metaphor could immediately give the sense that it is all for the worst, I must say it is not entirely running headfirst to that. The novel shares some happy moments too: carefully rebooted clichés on being free, loved, and accepted; celebration of life; and the idea that names and words could change and save lives. And the last, I believe, is something worth remembering when closing this book. Now I am determined to read more Jhumpa Lahiri.

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