Interpreter of Maladies

Indonesian edition’s cover

How does loneliness affect you? How will you deal with it? Can you interpret it? Jhumpa Lahiri, in her own way, has done it in Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection revealing several different embodiments of loneliness, and of alienation. It is not wrong, I should say, to think loneliness and alienation as maladies, for the two things are indeed what’s gnawing at us most. And Lahiri can cleverly describe those feelings through characters and simple narratives. I wouldn’t say that Interpreter of Maladies is a masterpiece, but it is a showcase for her literary ability to capture and transfer a seemingly belittled problem, which is truthfully never unreal in anyone’s life, into words.

The book consists of nine short stories, all of them are pretty well narrated. However, I won’t deny this, only four of them really captivated me, holding me hostage all through the few pages. In A Temporary Matter, the reader is presented with a married couple who seem to regret deeply the loss of their baby. They have not talked to each other for months and let silence invade their previously-full-of-passion home. The way Shukumar, the husband, describes it, his wife Shoba seems to be the one who becomes so distant after her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But beyond that, he cannot help but to admit, though only to himself, that he has lost his love for her far before that happens. Later on, he finds out that Shoba shares the same feeling for all this time. The question of love is also present in the story entitled Sexy. It shows the reader the contrast between a woman whose husband is having an affair with another woman and a woman with whom a man is having an affair. Craving for love and attention, Miranda doesn’t have even the slightest hesitation to develop a relationship with a man who is already married. Here Lahiri conveys how loneliness can secretly sneak its way through people’s hearts and make them craving for something that results in others being treated unfairly. But loneliness can come in any form, bringing with it toxic feelings we cannot run away from. Depression and alienation are what poisonous to the immigrants in Mrs. Sen’s and The Third and Final Continent, forcing them to develop a new habit and cope with social and environmental challenges that are so strange to them. Being isolated in loneliness doesn’t seem to harass them enough, and they still have to do what any immigrant should do: fitting themselves to the puzzle.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of stories about lonely people, those who are far away from home and those who are isolated in the society, and even in their own relationships. Shoba and Shukumar in A Temporary Matter had caught my attention instantly the moment the two appeared in a kitchen scene. Both were so silent, as I read it, creating an atmosphere so cold and unfriendly that they might as well be not a man and his wife. They were so out of reach, but the revealing narrative helped me understand their characters: dishonest, disloyal, distant. However, of the two, Shoba is the most attention-gripping to me. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to women more than I can to men. Shoba is a complicated person, her silence hiding more things than what we can guess through the reading. Her depression and disappointment do not show in her behavior nor in her attitude toward her husband, but in the hidden decision she’s made in silence, without even the reader knowing it. And, perhaps for the same reason, I feel sympathy for Miranda. I know she’s in the wrong, partly, for another woman’s ruinned marriage. She is so weak at first, falling easily into passion and hope of a true love, which happens to be concealed by mere lust. But then her sense of righteousness forces her to realize that she’s being unfair to that other woman.

There are some other interesting characters in Interpreter of Maladies, but I’m afraid I’m not capable of elaborating all my amazement for them. One thing for sure, though, they are portrayed so strong and fit each narrative they inhabit. All the stories tend to be ordinary, easy to read. They have no twists nor turns, no surprise, and even no emotional atmosphere such kind of stories should have. They all, I’d rather say, seem so flat. But, and I think this is the most important thing, their meaning feels so poignant, conveying the sense of loneliness and alienation in every possible way. Some stories end up cliffhanging, and some others are concluded in a bitter way. Oddly enough, that’s magical to me although I don’t think the narratives are quite engrossing, nor the storytelling is exceptional. However, the fast pace really helped me in enjoying and finishing them without substantial difficulties.

Seeing how flat all the short stories are written, yet how varied and deep they are, I can only say that I feel undecided whether or not I like Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri knows very well how to tell of, and talk about, loneliness, the one thing that keeps lurking within everybody especially those who are alien to their surrounding. I just wish it could be better than it already is.

Rating: 3.5/5

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2 thoughts on “Interpreter of Maladies

  1. I have a copy of this collection in my tbr pile as a couple of other readers recommended it. I seem to be drawn to short stories that deal with loneliness and isolation in some form so it’s interesting to read your thoughts on these. I loved the slow-burning style of her recent novel, The Lowland. Have you read that one?

    1. Unfortunately not yet. but I read her short story entitled Brotherly Love the other day, and as I checked its review on my friend’s blog, both seem to have the same idea. I then wondered if The Lowland is actually the extended version of Brotherly Love.

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