Friday, January 25, 2008

Communication Skills

"The secret to a happy marriage," my husband likes to tell me, "is good communication." I was reminded of his admonition while reading Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, for many of these characters suffer from a grave inability to communicate.

In this collection of nine elegantly written short stories, I met people like Shoba and Shukumar, a young couple mourning the death of their child, and burying their emotional pain so deeply they have barely acknowledged it to themselves. Also Twinkle and Sanjeev, a pair of newlyweds whose discovery of mysterious Christian icons hidden throughout their new home illuminates deep misunderstandings in their relationship. And in the title story, Mr. Karpasi, whose job it was to interpret the ailments of patients in a doctor's office, while he was suffering from his own painful emotional isolation.

Most of the characters are Indian, struggling to assimilate into Western culture, and so the communication schism becomes not only personal, but cultural as well. Rest assured, though, Lahiri has no problems communicating with her readers. Throughout these stories, her simple, direct prose resonated purely in my ear, and I could almost hear a soft voice with its lilting Indian accent pronouncing each perfectly chosen word.

And in spite of the serious themes she explores, Lahiri has a subtle air for poignant humor, as in this passage from This Blessed House:

He stood watching as she left the room, with her poster and her cigarette; a few ashes had fallen to the floor where she had been standing. He bent down, pinched them between his fingers, and deposited them in his cupped palm. The tender fourth movement, the adagietto, (of Mahler's Fifth Symphony) began to play on the stereo. During breakfast, Sanjeev had read in the liner notes that Mahler had proposed to his wife by sending her the manuscript of this portion of the scores. Although there were elements of tragedy and struggle in the Fifth Symphony, it was pricipally music of love and happiness.

He heard the toilet flush. "By the way," Twinkle hollered. "If you want to impress people, I wouldn't play this music. It's putting me to sleep."

Sanjeev went to the bathroom to throw away the ashes.

"The predicament at the heart of this book," Lahiri writes, "is the dilemma, the difficulty, and the impossibility of communicating emotional pain and affections to others, as well as expressing it to ourselves."

Indeed, there is almost a painful reserve to these characters, yet in spite of (or perhaps because of) the barriers they have so painstakingly erected, I was drawn to them, found myself yearning to help them open their hearts. In this collection, Lahiri herself became their "interpreter of maladies," the voice that guided me through their lives, articulating their emotions with great sensitivity and restraint.

What a sublime reading experience for me, and the perfect choice for my first selection in
The Short Story Challenge.

Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Copywrite 1999, Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Miflin
198 pages

cross posted at Bookstack


Scuzzy said...

I have read the "Interpreter of Maladies" several times and love every story in the collection. Lahiri really does have a masterful way of creating those spaces between people. Those taut, fragile and isolated spaces that become so difficult to cross.

It is certainly a wonderful collection and quite possibly my favorite.

Glad you enjoyed them as well.

ta said...

I read and loved these stories, too. The last story (I think it's called the Third and Final Continent) was my favorite. The local public radio station always has local actors read short stories on Thanksgiving Day, so my husband and I listened to it on our way to his parents house. I loved the way the characters who didn't seem like they could possibly get along manage to develop affection for each other over time.