“The Penguins Book of Italian News” edited by Jhumpa Lahiri highlights hybridity


Everything Jhumpa Lahiri does is informed by his immersion in the Italian language a few years ago. As she tells it in the sumptuous and immense volume which she has just published, The Penguins Book of Italian News, in 2012, while still based in the United States, she chose to read only in Italian and then moved to Italy. She went on to write in Italian, including her fascinating read / write memoir On parole (translated into English by Ann Goldstein as In other words). Now a professor of creative writing at Princeton University in the United States, the American writer of Indian origin then began to translate Italian works into English.

Straddling languages

Lahiri translated two novels by Italian writer Domenico Starnone, Connections and Tower. And here in the anthology of 40 short stories, many were translated into English by her. Many writers may already be familiar to non-Italian readers, including Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Alberto Moravia, and Elsa Morante, but overall it’s a collection full of incentives to check out more. writings by the listed authors. Yet Lahiri does something more than just present his list. It conditions the reader to see the group of writers as a collective, with all kinds of hybrids defining their writers’ profiles as well as their texts.

It helped her to meet writer’s lives in their entirety – all living writers were eliminated when arriving at the final selection, which brought together “many writers who inspired my love for Italian literature, and for the Italian news in particular “. . After narrowing her selection to 40, she found that many writers knew and influenced each other. She also discovered that they were “hybrid individuals”: ​​“They were writers of fiction and at the same time they were almost always other things: poets, journalists, visual artists, musicians.

Many had day jobs. But most interestingly, and this is something Lahiri starkly points out in his short profiles of each writer: “… the vast majority were translators, living, reading and writing straddling two or more languages. Her own literary development may have made her particularly attentive to this aspect, but her brief profiles of each writer highlight her view that “the act of translation, at the heart of their artistic training, was a performance. linguistics of their innate hybridity ”.

This hybridity, she says in reference to today’s curiosity about Elena Ferrante’s identity, is seen in the number of writers who wrote under another name, sometimes choosing a pseudonym or changing their name, sometimes for personal reasons but also to protect themselves. Natalia Ginzburg, for example. The Jewish writer published her first collection of stories while in hiding in the early 1940s, due to anti-Semitic racial laws, under the pseudonym Alessandra Tornimparte. After Benito Mussolini’s downfall, he was released as Ginzburg – and Lahiri silently blurted out that the selection story, “My Husband,” was suggested to him by Ginzburg’s daughter Alessandra.

Ginzburg’s example reminds us that all but one of these writers felt the “reality of fascism”, with all its violence against the human spirit, including against language itself by trying to erase foreign words. As Lahiri writes, “The whole of the twentieth century can be read as a battle of wills between the wall that fascism has sought to erect around Italy and Italian culture, and those – many writers are among them. – determined, despite serious risks, to break it. Two of the writers here, Lahiri reminds us, were taken to Nazi concentration camps, one escaped before they got there, and many lived in hiding because they were Jews or because they had joined. anti-fascist resistance.

The need to maintain the historical context in which these stories were written is underscored by Lahiri’s timeline at the end, with two titles placed side by side: Literary Events and Historical Events.

By definition

Among the most impressive discoveries for me in this volume is a very short story by Goffredo Parise called “Melancholy”, translated by Lahiri. It is taken from Sillabari, published in the two-volume original in 1972 and 1982. Each story obviously speaks of a single emotion, and in “Melancholy,” a seven-year-old girl experiences emotion in a deeply personal and social context before her big – father does not put a name to him, an act of translation between the felt and the spoken.

Mini Kapoor is an idea editor, The Hindu.

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