Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri
Houghton Mifflin, 1999

UnknownIn all nine short stories included in this 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, Lahiri seems to be inserting a karmic math to her stories. Characters are unable to see or they clearly see their life situation reflected in mundane events surrounding them. They range from the cover of evening darkness due to the power company to the last story’s running parallel math of culture changes by moving from India to America versus living to be one hundred years old.

The writing is excellent and is consistent in tone with a center in the story of internal desperation. A young couple in the first story is grieving a stillborn death and in the darkness of their separate and different griefs begin to make confessions during in the dark when the lights go out.

In the namesake Interpreter of Maladies, a tour guide disappointed in his life and circumstances imagines nuances and flirtations in a client that let him live briefly in hope.

The last story seems a mathematics story problem of seeing the

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

world change before your eyes in ways that seem impossible to overcome and accept as good. A young college graduate in Boston rents a room for a woman over a hundred years old who dresses as they did in the 1890s and is appalled at morality changes and that man is on the moon. Against that the student anticipates and lives through the first awkward months of his Indian bride’s arrival who has never been outside her village or away from her parents.

All the stories are told through the lens of contemporary Indian culture, often suffused with American or British culture. Sometimes the people are well-educated men and women living academic lives in Boston or New York. Other times they are told through the eyes of people who have never left India, but Lahiri gracefully writes it with the same ear to the heartbeat of need, fantasy, and fear.

The story problems work out. Or rather they end. Literary fiction is defined by a heavy and serious depiction of what is written as “real” in “real lives”. There are few if any laughs, few murders, plenty of suicides, lots of depressed grad students, and a general lack of romance that continues to happily ever after. At the end of reading the reader usually feels enlightened to “real” life, but feels no better for it.

There are no suicides or murders in this book and more people are depressed than just grad students, but Lahiri handles their puppet strings well and at the end I feel a bit more enlightened that yes, as Thoreau indicated, most people live lives of quiet desperation.
***

New word learned: Auscultation – the act of listening to sounds arising with organs as a tool in diagnosis.
Sentence in book: After x-rays, probes, auscultations, and injections, some merely advised BiBi to gain weight, others to lose it.

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8 Responses to Interpreter of Maladies

  1. Going by the sentence you quoted, is this is a heavy, slow read?

  2. 99% of contemporary literary fiction is a heavy read. Slow? Not especially. It’s readable and I think people understand it or not for different reasons. I’m playing with adding a small addendum at the bottom of book reviews of a word I learned or re-learned by reading it. It’s an exercise for me, but I think learning new words beyond technological jargon is worthwhile. Does it seem maybe silly or odd to add it?

  3. Sue Slaght says:

    Just reading your response to Tess I would add I quite like the added word at the end. I like the uniqueness of it. This word I actually know from my years of nursing.

  4. Thanks. And it is my total lack of being around all things of the medical professions that contributed to not knowing the word. That’s a beauty of reading.

  5. livelytwist says:

    I’ve only read, ‘Sexy’ and I loved it. I liked the way that I ‘grew’ with the protagonist in understanding that the relationship was headed nowhere. I like Lahiri’s style. I read it several times and hoped that subconsciously, my brain would take something from her style that would eventually show up in my writing.

    “The writing is excellent and is consistent in tone with a center in the story of internal desperation.”
    I like your summary. I’ll have to complete the book.

  6. Auscultation, a new one to me, that’s for sure, I always thought that was tympanic resonance. My mom used to do that when we had a stomach ache! It sounds like an amazing book, much more profound than my sugary chick lit novels!

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