Title: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Book Beginnings quote (from "A Temporary Matter"):
The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter; for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.
Friday56 quote (from "Interpreter of Maladies"):
When he finished writing his address Mr. Kapasi handed her the paper, but as soon as he did he worried that he had either misspelled his name, or accidentally reverse the numbers of his postal code.
Summary: This 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is a collection of nine stories set in India or whose characters are Indian but living in the US. Each story finds the characters seeking love and acceptance yet are often misunderstood or maligned.
Review: I've decided that I really like to read short stories, or, more specifically, well-written short stories of which this book is full. The thing about short stories that captivates me is how fast the reader has to jump into the action. There is no time for long descriptions, introductions, or frivolous details. For example, in the first story, "A Temporary Matter", the reader learns within the first few pages that a young couple have lost their way together after the stillborn death of their first child. Will their time together each night in the dark due to the power outage save or destroy their marriage?
In the third story, "Interpreter of Maladies", Mr. Kapasi is moonlighting as a driver for tourists. His main job is to interpret the maladies spoken by patients which he then translates into English so the doctor can understand their symptoms. One of the tourists he is chauffeuring around misunderstands his job and doesn't think of him as a translator but as a person who can figure out what is wrong with people. Mr. Kapasi misinterprets her attention as something sexual just as she misunderstands his actual job. One is left wondering at the twist: an interpreter misinterpreting.
In fact, each story ends thusly. The story is merely a chapter, a moment, and event, then it is over and the reader is left wondering at all the possible endings. I love that. Don't you? When I read, I love filling in some of the gaps and guessing what will happen next off the page.
Jhumpa Lahiri is an Indian-American, immigrating with her family of West Bengali descent when she was three years old. Her father was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island and was the model for the protagonist of last story in this collection, "The Third and Final Continent." Her parents always wanted Lahiri to appreciate her Bengali heritage and they often took her back to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to visit relatives. These experiences populate her stories.
Two months ago I took a look on ranked lists of past Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners to determine which of the 90+ books were the best of the best. (See the results of my research here.) Interpreter of Maladies was often in the top ten of the lists I consulted. I didn't know what I'd be getting from reading a bunch of short stories published over twenty years ago. But what I got was well worth the effort it took to find the book and to read the stories. I ended up liking or at least having compassion for each of the main characters and in the process learned a bit about Bengali culture and what it like being an immigrant living abroad. I highly recommend this book.