Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.

Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.  

The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.

We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.

Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”

Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”

Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.

Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.

The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”

The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.

I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.

But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.

Is I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.

Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.

The Krull House – Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

I am slowly making my way through Georges Simenon’s novels, particularly his ‘roman durs.’ Having previously written about The Blue Room and Act of Passion, both very good, I thought The Krull House was another excellent novel, quite absorbing and also frightening.

The Krull House is a prescient and suspenseful tale of how close-knit communities harbor feelings of mistrust towards outsiders, how they are excluded because their perceived foreignness make them objects of suspicion and resentment. Although this book was penned in the late 1930s, its themes remain relevant even today.

When the novel opens, we are told that the Krull family, whose origins are German, lives on the fringes of a rural town in France, near the canal. The head of the family, Cornelius Krull, weaves and sells baskets and for the most part is seen in his workshop engrossed in his tradecraft. Originally from Germany, Cornelius through the course of his wanderings in Europe, suddenly decides to stop at this French town and settle there. Cornelius’ wife Maria runs the family bar and shop. The couple has three children – the eldest daughter Anna, who helps Maria with the household chores, Joseph who is studying to become a doctor, and Liesbeth, who is a budding pianist.

Because of their background, the town residents shun the Krull establishment, but the family members need to survive and so they resign themselves to do business with the bargees on the canal.

Their closed-off, hermetic existence, though, is rattled when cousin Hans comes to live with them. Hans is Cornelius’ nephew (his brother’s son) but they have not been in touch for many years. Hans is a typical German Krull – brash, insouciant and carefree, whereas the French Krulls are anything but – their manner is quiet and restrained.

From the outset, Hans’ presence unsettles the family. Although his father is dead, Hans withholds this information, giving them the false impression he is alive, and concocts some story about why he is in France. He willingly admits he lied, however, to Liesbeth with whom he begins an affair.

Meanwhile, we learn that Joseph, attracted to a girl named Sidonie, has been following her and her friend Germaine, because he can’t muster the courage to ask her out, a development that does not escape Hans’ ever watchful eye. To complicate matters, Hans with his wild, assertive behaviour continues to irk the Krull family members who are desperately trying to fit in and not attract unnecessary attention.

Things come to a boil when Sidonie’s body is found floating on the canal one morning. Clearly, she has been murdered…And the Krull family, unwillingly, finds itself in the middle of a maelstrom that threatens to erupt into violence.

Simenon is brilliant at capturing the personalities of the various Krull family members, the way they are at complete odds with their neighbours, and how they slide into a predicament they have no wish to be a part of.

Cornelius is an amazingly quiet man, so much so that the family hardly notices his presence. Although he has made a home in this French town, he hasn’t made any special efforts to integrate or blend with its inhabitants and barely mingles with the townspeople. Even after all these years, he isn’t fluent in French, and having forgotten much of German, he speaks in a language that is a curious amalgam of both that only his family can understand. Is there more to him than meets the eye though?

It was then that Maria Krull was struck by Cornelius’ attitude. He still hadn’t moved. He was looking down at the tablecloth, and no emotion could be seen in his eyes. But he seemed older, all at once. There he was, silent, motionless, and nobody knew what he was thinking.

The rest of the family tries hard to fit in with not much success. Maria Krull, in a way, is the rock of the family scrambling to hold the ship together but is frustrated at how they are always at the receiving end. In this regard, a conversation between Hans and Liesbeth highlights the family dilemma…

Liesbeth: ‘People have been so awful to us!’

Hans: ‘Why?’

‘Because of everything! Because we’re foreigners! At school, the children called me the Kraut, and the teacher would say to me in front of the whole class: “Mademoiselle, when one receives a country’s hospitality, one has to double the duty to behave well.” 

 Meanwhile, Joseph and Hans could not have been more different. Both men are in their mid-twenties, but whereas Joseph is shy, awkward, lacking in self-esteem, Hans is insolent, bold and socially at ease. No wonder then, while Joseph resents Hans immensely, Hans eyes him with undisguised contempt.

Hans, however, is very perceptive and is acutely aware of why the locals view the Krulls the way they do. In his many conversations with Maria Krull he points out a fault in them which he thinks is crucial – the Krulls are either too eager to please people or too laidback to do anything about it, there is never any middle ground.

Throughout the book, Simenon’s prose is spare and simple and there’s an atmosphere of menace and dread that permeates the novel as we wonder how these various elements are going to play out.

This novel was published in 1939 at a time when the rumblings of a Second World War were beginning to get louder and Hitler was marching across Europe. It also meant that the general distrust towards Germans was probably at its peak. Thus, the Krulls, by virtue of being German, were singled out even though they had been French residents for a long time. Maybe they never had a chance.

The Krull House, then, is a powerful, unsettling exploration of how unfairly society judges outsiders, a fact that is even more pronounced in smaller communities, the hostile treatment meted out to them, and how they become dead ducks when something goes wrong. The abundance of malicious rumours flying around unsupported by any shred of concrete evidence, makes their attempt to establish themselves futile from the start.

These are the very forces that hurtle like a juggernaut towards the unfortunate Krulls as the novel reaches its terrifying conclusion.