In “The Procession,” the city becomes a home that one can never fully return to; in “P’s Parties” it is a place and a state of being to get away from; in “Well-Lit House” it is a fantasy and a cage. In “The Reentry,” she takes us to a family-owned trattoria, describes the odd architecture, the relative dullness of the interiors, and suddenly you realize you’ve probably been to an establishment exactly like this in your hometown, wherever that is in the world. You’ve had the owner welcome you like family, even chide you, perhaps, for not eating enough. Like the “women in mourning,” the first of the story’s protagonists, we have all instinctively belonged somewhere. And then, of course, like the story’s second protagonist, “the professor,” we have also been the outsider: we’ve been ignored, demeaned, even disliked simply for not belonging.
Originally published in Italian, and translated by Todd Portnowitz and the author herself, Roman Stories is written with a sort of elegant simplicity that hits deeper than you realize. Maybe it’s a consequence of reading a work in translation—those little language-specific oddities remain—but I believe the book benefits from how selectively specific Lahiri chooses to be. The city doesn’t feel like a “character” in the way that places often do in site-specific stories. What happens in Rome, the author seems to say, happens pretty much everywhere else. People share first kisses on street benches everywhere in the world, just like they ruminate about their lives on the steps of public buildings everywhere. Every church has seen marriages and mourning, every restaurant has seen old friends reunite over an awkward lunch. Every story captures the city—every city—in a different shade, sometimes harsh, sometimes mellow, sometimes devastatingly dark.
“This city is shit,” says an unnamed character in “Dante Alighieri,” the final story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s freshly translated new anthology, Roman Stories, before adding the final, concluding sentiment, “but so damn beautiful.” The character, a surrogate I assume of Lahiri herself, is speaking about Rome, but the sentiment could apply to basically any city in the world. It could apply to my own hometown of Mumbai—humid and overcrowded, but always relentlessly, beautifully alive. It could apply to New York—the city of dreams that can be so cold and so punishing to those of us who can’t realize them. Who doesn’t both hate and love their city in equal measure? I’m sure Bruce Wayne has something similar to say about Gotham; Bart Simpson has probably expressed the same sentiment about Springfield. What I am trying to say is, after I turned the final page of Roman Stories, I came away thinking not about the piazzas and bridges and cathedrals of Rome—where most of all nine stories are set—but about my own complicated relationship with my own complicated city. What does it mean to be here, and what does it mean to belong?
For the most part, the book lurks in the grays of “unbelonging”—the isolation, the microaggressions, the mundane frustrations of cultural difference. Sometimes, like in “Well-Lit House” or “The Delivery,” the experience of this unbelonging culminates in outright violence. The protagonists, however, are rarely, if ever, defined by their cultural background. Lahiri might reference a piece of clothing here, or a skin tone there, to assure us that the Rome she writes about is very much a part of our real world, and so the same real-world prejudices apply. But otherwise, the stories seem to take place in a hazy dreamworld of the mind, and I suppose this is the real “place” they belong to.