“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
After the monumental headache that was Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, I needed the taste of really great writing in my mouth again. So, after much coaxing from Joshua—who said this book would “change my life,” “break my heart,” and “make [me] believe in the magic of storytelling”—I went to the bookshelf and picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2000 Pulitzer-winner, Interpreter of Maladies.
And, after sobbing at the conclusion of the very first story in the collection, I knew then that Joshua was probably right—this was going to be the greatest collection of stories I have ever read.
For the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize in the millennium, the Pulitzer committee made an interesting decision—they awarded it to a London-born Indian Hindu woman who was raised in the United States; they awarded it to a collection of short stories that all revolve around a theme of international, relational, and romantic transplantation. I have to believe that the Pulitzer committee had a double-intention when they awarded Interpreter of Maladies the Prize. For one thing, obviously, this book deserved to win—it is an amazing, awe-inspiring, incredibly eloquent book. Lahiri, even though she was only 33 when her collection of stories was published, writes with a wisdom and an understanding of human relationship dynamics and of the world around her that a much older woman would possess. I was actually very surprised when I learned that she was so young when these stories were written. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly in the selection process, Jhumpa Lahiri and her collection of stories embody the shift the literary world made from postmodernism to post-postmodernism.
Although it is this writer’s opinion that post-postmodernism wasn’t truly born until the second World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001, the late 1990’s started signaling shifts in thinking and the way artists were interpreting and understanding the world around them. I think that the advent of the Internet and the introduction of the idea of the entire world being webbed together started deteriorating postmodernism, and 9/11 delivered its death blow. And from the rubble of the World Trade Centers, when every person in America—every person in the world—suddenly became a New Yorker, arose the Global Village.
It is this Global Village that Lahiri so eloquently describes in each story of Interpreter of Maladies.
Whether writing about the distance between two lovers and how truly the same that man and woman are (“A Temporary Matter”); two nationalities that become the same heritage under the distress of uncertainty (“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”); two religions that become intertwined and intermixed (“This Blessed House”); or overcoming the walls of nationality, gender, and generation (“The Third and Final Continent”), Lahiri’s stories transcend barriers by writing beyond our conceptions of those barriers.
(just as a note, now that I have some examples to work with, here’s the difference between postmodern and post-postmodern: if “A Temporary Matter” had been written in the 1960’s, the author would have focused more on the distance of the man and the woman—their differences, but how their differences made them both totally unique, but both totally right in their own way; instead, under post-postmodernism, the author acknowledges the distance between the man and the woman, but instead focuses on the ties that draw and bind them together, instead of the differences that force them apart).
I really love the way this collection is described on the back of the book, and I don’t think anything I could ever write could sum Interpreter of Maladies up as well as this does:
…this stunning debut collection unerringly charts the emotional journeys of characters seeking love beyond the barriers of nations and generations. “A writer of uncommon sensitivity and restraint…Ms. Lahiri expertly captures the out-of-context lives of immigrants, expatriates, and first-generation Americans” (Wall Street Journal). In stories that travel from India to America and back again, Lahiri speaks with universal eloquence to everyone who has ever felt like a foreigner.
I’m going to make a bold claim, here—it is with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies that post-postmodernism was conceived. It hadn’t been born yet—that would come later; but I really do believe that with this book, published in 1999, the seed had been planted. If literary critics and historians prove me right, that will make Interpreter of Maladies one of the most epochal books ever written, putting it in the company of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and James Joyce’s Ulyssess.
But, of course, even if my claim doesn’t ring true, and Interpreter of Maladies doesn’t become the epochal collection of stories that I’m describing it as, one thing will always remain true of it—this is a fantastic collection of short stories that everybody needs to read.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.