Jhumpa Lahiri finds herself in Italy, with time between books and engagements. In Whereabouts she takes a notebook with her as she meanders around a country she knows well. She’s not a tourist. She’s more of a ‘flaneuse’ or in Italian, a ‘fannuilona’ or a ‘perdigomo.’
Her notebook is not actually a journal because it’s not organized by dates (or days), but by geography, places, “whereabouts.” She is mostly alone and her writing reflects some of the decay, weight, and beauty of antiquity. Italy has a long history.
Although published in English in 2021, as translated by the author, the book was first published in Italian in 2018. So, we are not experiencing Italy either during or in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was hit early and hard but would not have allowed for a whimsical wander about any of its cities in those sad days.
Chapter names reflect content: On the Sidewalk, On the Street, In Spring, In my Head, Nowhere.
From In My Head, page 31
“Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well. It’s probably my mother’s influence. She’s always afraid of being alone and now her life as an old woman torments her so much that when I call to ask how she’s doing, she just says, I’m very alone…”
From At the Museum, page 33
“The most beautiful room—it belonged to an emperor’s consort—has a garden painted onto the walls, teeming with trees, flowers, citrus plants, animals. Pomegranates have split open and birds perch on the branches of the trees. The scene is fixed, faded. The trees with their thin branches, seem to bend as if from the soft breeze that courses through the landscape. This semblance of a breeze is what makes the painted nature tremble, rendering everything paradoxically alive.”
Interesting to be in someone else’s head and space for a while, especially in the head of Jhumpa Lahiri, an author I admire. Virtual reality, old style. This book is fiction but I identified with it so strongly that I read it as nonfiction.