I’m a great fan of short stories because I think there is something particularly poignant about them that the novel just doesn’t share; it’s the way a great short stories lets us glimpse into a character’s life and just get the feeling of a problem or part of the atmosphere. They have a way of ending just a moment too soon –at the moment of revelation, but not necessarily conclusion.
I felt the same way about Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, her debut collection of short stories which won the Pulitzer back in 2000. Jhumpa Lahiri is an American writer of Indian background, and her stories all have one thing in common: they deal with the personal ‘maladies’ that exist from trying to integrate a person’s original culture and life in a new home.
(Lahiri – isn’t she stunning?)
Most of the stories are about Indian characters trying to settle in America (usually Boston) and struggling with love, marriage, or their children, but the title story is set back in India.
“The Interpreter of Maladies” is about an Indian tour guide showing an American family around and feeling for the first time some connection with the American wife on the tour, who is the only one to show some interest in him and particularly in his other part time job, which is in a doctor’s office translating the local dialect of patients in order to help him diagnose their illnesses.
The woman makes a confession to him by the end that he finds particularly disturbing, apparently seeking absolution or some gentler form of the truth, and the ‘interpreter’ realises that there is nothing he can do but give her his honest diagnosis of their situation. It seemed to me like a pretty good depiction of Lahiri herself or maybe all writers in general: they serve as “interpreters” of maladies but can’t always be the healers – apart from concluding (wryly!) that people’s troubles are perhaps no different in Bengal than they are in Boston.