Interpreter of Maladies


Each writer must submit to being judged by the truth and beauty of their own prose and nothing else.

Earlier this week I popped into a Charity Shop near where I lived, and in a fit of whimsy bought the paperback of Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, which had won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway award, and the New Yorker prize for Best First Book.

It had been such a long time since I’d read a paperback, and this slim, attractive book seemed like a relic of a former, glorious time in literature and publishing, and because it also nicely coincided with my new work as a critic for Country Squire India. For the price of 50p, I would have been foolish not to buy it.

A collection of nine short stories, each a finely crafted wistful, romantic tale of Indians in exile, whether they be living as a lovelorn, lonely New York socialite or a poverty stricken street sweeper exiled from her own home in India by the devastating curse of her low caste.

Anthony Quinn in Harper’s & Queen wrote:

“The genius of Jhumpa Lahiri’s storytelling lies in her restrained drollery, her eye for details, and her tone of wise consolation.”

Victoria Millar in The Scotsman went further in her praise, writing:

“Another side of India emerges when Lahiri sets her stories solely in Calcutta – where her protagonists are not Harvard academics but stair sweepers and outcasts. The nostalgic mix of homesickness lifted, India emerges raw, chaotic and often harsh.”

This subtle, intoxicating collection of Indian stories intertwine thematically in endless, poetic loops, so the reading of the book becomes more compulsive and intriguing the more you read on. Lahiri is a quite spectacular prose stylist, and having thoroughly enjoyed her book, I am convinced of the sheer brilliance of this rebellious, romantic writer, who within Interpreter of Maladies sneaks in an impressive number of subtle literary allusions.

After 9/11 decimated the American publishing industry, now having to operate with a government sanctioned War on Terror, a novel like Lahiri’s, (careful, magical, paranoid, vaguely apocalyptic), became almost irrelevant at the start of the terrifying 21st century, with its now unknown, violent narrative.

Twenty years later, and it’s very clear that Interpreter of Maladies is well worth revisiting, retaining a wisdom rare in an author so young at the time she wrote it. I’ve never read anything yet that truly captured the endlessly seductive, intoxicating nature of India, with detailed description of the cuisine, fashion, politics, tragedies and victories of Indian America. Amy Tan concluded:

“Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say “Read this!” She’s a dazzling storyteller with a distinctive voice, an eye for nuance, and an ear for irony. She is one of the finest short story writers I’ve read.”

Books as cleverly put together as this are rare in the age of soundbites and Twitter. Interpreter of Maladies was published long before our troublesome culture of PC correctness and identity politics, where celebrity writers are judged on their social media followings and how many retweets they get. This is a world long since disappeared, but since Lahiri is such a careful, clever writer, I can see this book coming back in a big way.