Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Book review: Interpreter of Maladies

December 2005

Even though it was published six years ago, I just finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. This debut collection of short stories is nothing less than a work of art, and Ms. Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and other prizes as well, for good reason. I have her novel, The Namesake, waiting in my pile of books to read, and I am truly glad.

The range of characters is interesting and quite far-ranging: a young American boy, a middle-aged man giving tours in India, a young American woman. All the stories involve Indian immigrants or their children and take place mostly in the U.S. ‚– Boston is a favored locale ‚– although some stories are also set in India, notably the title story, ‚“Interpreter of Maladies.” I loved this story, of a middle-aged Indian man who accompanies tourists to local sites on the weekends. During the week, he interprets for a medical doctor, hence he is an interpreter of maladies. But he also interprets the psychic and moral malady of the young American mother, herself a daughter of Indian immigrants, he has taken on a tour. He finds himself attracted to her and thinks perhaps she feels the same when she remains in the car instead of accompanying her family at one spot. But instead she makes a confession and seems to seek absolution; the man cannot help but tell her the truth as he sees it, which far from absolves her, and upon hearing it, she jumps out of the car.

Ms. Lahiri is also a truth-teller and interpreter of maladies, those of immigrants to America from the Indian continent and their children, the first generation of Americans. Her characters feel completely real, and her prose is beautiful but not overwrought, being incredibly evocative without calling attention to itself. And her stories work in layers, just as the title of the book both comes for a story and tells us part of the author’s story. It is a clear-eyed portrayal of life as these people experience it. Although the characters always run into difficulty (where is the story if there is no conflict, after all?), the author is never melodramatic.

Interpreter of Maladies is a work to be admired, savored, and enjoyed, and should take its place among the best of American literature. It is an important to work have there, because it interprets for us the world of one of our latest immigrant populations.

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.

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