These days we can’t seem to get enough of films and books about intercultural experience: A few years back it was The Kite Runner (2003), Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling first novel and then film about a boy growing up in Afghanistan who is transplanted to California after the Soviet invasion of his country. In 2000 Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, about characters moving between traditional East Indian culture and east-coast life in the U.S., while her novel The Namesake (2003), dealing with similar themes, was repackaged as a successful film (2007). More recently, films such as the beautiful German-Turkish Edge of Heaven (German Auf der anderen Seite) and the near-perfect The Visitor capture the complexities of intercultural existence and captivate audiences as they simultaneously point out the tragic absurdities that result from bureaucratic, often repressive reactions to post-9/11 “globalization.”
Such art can give us a bit of the anthropologist’s sensitivity to other cultures. Luise’s been reading up on Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict in preparation for her and Swantje’s essay for our upcoming book on women’s love-life-work partnerships; she reports her most recently acquired informatiion daily, e.g., about the aggressive, competitive Dobu or the cooperative, peaceful Pueblo, documenting how these two pioneering researcher-thinkers advanced our understanding of cultural patterns and their shaping of behavior, especially when it comes to gender roles, sexuality and “deviance.” Such tidbits of information, presented in fascinating detail over lunch or breakfast, usually prompt me to repeat my assertion that if I were starting over again in life I would probably choose to study anthropology. Indeed, in our shrinking world we all would do well to learn as much as we can about how “others” live their lives and how they see “us.” It has become a matter of mutual survival.
But the appeal of works such as Interpreter of Maladies is not limited to the fascination of different cultural experience. In fact, I find that the very distance offered by the perspectives of those from a different culture allows the human universals to shimmer through, compelling me to empathize with even the most unlikely of characters. Like her Canadian contemporary Alice Munro, Lahiri has the uncanny ability of getting inside her figures and revealing their innermost selves without “telling” us what they’re thinking or feeling. She has a marvelous command of vocabulary, subtly shifting the diction depending on the person whose point of view governs the narration. Like Munro also, Lahiri does not “construct” plots with predictable, Hollywood-style resolutions (a problem I had with the conclusion to The Kite Runner).
But apparently many Americans want such resolutions. After viewing the wonderful Edge of Heaven at the Kendall Square Theater, we made our customary stop in the restroom before driving back to Jamaica Plain. A gray-haired woman standing at the sink called out cheerfully but a bit impatiently as we emerged from our stalls, “Well, does he come back? And will they get together?” She was disappointed that the film had left open whether the estranged father and son would be reunited, or whether the German mother would “adopt” the Turkish ex-revolutionary lesbian lover of her dead daughter. Somehow the many layers of complex significance and wise ambiguity had left her unsatisfied. As this seemingly sophisticated, intelligent woman left the restroom Luise drily offered her European perspective: the American movie-goer wants her Hollywood Happy End. Yet another intercultural aperçu.
Writing about “ordinary” people in “ordinary” situations, Lahiri manages to make them significant and even marvelous. The narrator of the final story concludes with an observation that could be used as a motto for the entire book: he knows that his “achievement is quite ordinary. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” (“The Third and Final Continent,” 198).
One thing that impressed me with this collection was the variety of “ordinary” situations and characters Lahiri brings to life: young professionals in semi-arranged marriages, living second-generation in the U.S.; poor Pakistani or Indian women dependent on the charity of others; pre-adolescents observing, at a critical stage in their development, persons with backgrounds and customs different from their own; middle-aged Indian or Indian-American women and men attempting to live their lives according to their own values and traditions, even as these are challenged in the context of the story. There is even a 103-year-old white Cambridge landlady in an old-fashioned, floor-length black skirt with ideas to match; the former piano-teacher unexpectedly becomes an instrument of compassion, and opens the heart of her Indian tenant to the bride his family has selected.
Most of the stories show persons in some sort of transition, negotiating the intersections of cultural, ethnic, class, gender, religious or age differences with greater or lesser success and grace. One of my favorites was “At Mrs. Sen’s,” the story of a thirty-something woman transplanted from India to a suburb north of Boston by her husband, a mathematics professor. It is told through the eyes of 11-year-old Eliot, the child of an American single mother who leaves him with Mrs. Sen while she is at the office. While Mr. Sen spends his days at the university, his wife prepares elaborate Indian meals for him, chopping vegetables for hours at a time on newspapers spread out over the floor, wielding a powerful blade she has brought “from home.” Mrs. Sen is completely isolated in her new life; her husband is kind but distant (we get the feeling that this may be one of the arranged marriages that did not progress much beyond the formalities). Symbol of her virtually captive dependency in the U.S. is her inability to drive, although she is reluctantly trying to learn; in India she had no need, she explains to Eliot’s mother, for there the family had a driver. Yes, “everything is in India.” Eliot, who lives his own brand of uncommented isolation, describes Mrs. Sen’s growing depression, her life of quiet desperation, with respectful precision. Somehow a sense of uneasy tension is created, although the events leading up to the final turn are “ordinary” enough: Mrs. Sen is repeatedly frustrated in her attempts to get to the fish market to buy the fresh whole fish she needs to perfect her meal and decides to drive herself. The “disaster” too is told in gentle, understated fashion: “The accident came quickly….The damage was slight.” Buried in the simple statement is the ironic question: is the damage to Mrs. Sen’s psyche really so slight? Typically, Lahiri’s formulation holds many more resonances than first meet the eye.
Her prose abounds with images and phrases that suggest multiple significances; titles such as “A Temporary Matter,” “This Blessed House,” or “Interpreter of Maladies,” and images such as learning to drive or aggressively chopping vegetables lend a depth to these stories that adds to their power to move us. The narratives may be cast in the specific intercultural contexts of India and America, but their recurring themes of disturbed communication, faulty understanding and absent or found empathy are both timeless and universal. After months of silent estrangement, the young husband and wife in “A Temporary Matter” are able to confess their mutual betrayals and admit the ending of their love, and in the process find a final but “temporary” intimacy: “They wept together, for the things they now knew.” Exposing the interpersonal distances that exist within the cultural differences, Lahiri succeeds in being an interpreter of all our maladies.
(Thanks to Jean, who gave me The Namesake, and to Alan for insisting I read Interpreter of Maladies.)
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