Roman Stories

Image of Roman Stories
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
Reviewed by: 

"Lahiri introduces us to a wide range of . . . outsider characters . . . more of an interior journey than a touristic travelogue.”

Jhumpa Lahiri originally wrote this book of short stories in Italian, then translated it into English with the help of Todd Portnowitz. It's an interesting writing exercise, but also one with a different purpose: to get Lahiri's work directly in front of an Italian public.

Though called Roman Stories, the eternal city doesn't really feature in any of the vignettes here. There is no real sense of Rome, visually, historically, culturally. The reader doesn't see the rich palimpsest Rome offers, with ancient ruins peeking out from Renaissance walls, Baroque churches towering over medieval buildings. There isn't much visually evoked at all except for in the most complicated story, "The Steps." Built around one long staircase in the city and the different people who climb it, the steps offer Lahiri a chance to introduce a wide cross-section of Roman inhabitants, each of whom sees the steps—and their lives—in a different way.

"The mother" doesn't normally have a chance to enjoy the scenery around her, but climbing the steps to work allows her a chance to relish the view:

"If she manages to get there before sunrise, everything looks hazy: the buildings seem as if they're made of smoke, and a few stars linger in the gray air. Two identical cupolas are still lit up at that hour, and the faint shape of the mountains behind them resembles giant waves swelling in an ocean storm."

She stops to take a photo to send to her son, who lives with his grandparents far away. The "mother" is left caring for children who aren't her own, in order to support the one who is.

"The widow" goes down the steps, living at the top as she does. For her the steps are full of trash left behind by the young people who drink and party there late at night, leaving broken bottles as dangerous shards.

"All this shattered glass is the by-product of those kids who perch on the steps like flies on a slice of melon until two or three in the morning."

"The expat wife" is the next character to run up the steps. She, like most of the characters in the book, isn't from Rome, isn't Italian at all. She's an outsider and like most of the outsiders in these stories, she longs for her home.

"The girl" is also an outsider, not like all the other kids she goes to school with, though she tries to be part of the herd. "They descend together like a bumbling hive, or rather, like a waterfall, a live current." The girl may be right next to the others, but she's not included. "None of the girls invites her to join their group to get a slice of pizza or a gelato or even asks if she has a light."

This is the thread that snakes through all the stories, which are more "Outsider" stories than "Roman" stories. Most of the characters in "The Steps" and in all of the stories collected here are clearly not part of the city they live in. The woman in "Notes" finds threatening, racist messages slipped into her pockets when she takes a temporary job at a school. The woman in "The Delivery" is jeered at to "Go wash those dirty legs." Such slurs and insults run through the vignettes offered her.

Lahiri introduces us to a wide range of these outsider characters, each a small slice of a life torn between cultures and countries. The last story, "Dante Alighieri," brings together these elements.

"Were there people, in Dante's time, condemned to have more than one life—that is, to never have one full life?"

The narrator, who travels between her homes in Italy and America, never feels like she fully belongs in either: "How long must we live to learn how to survive?"

That question hangs over all of these stories. The reader isn't truly in Rome because the author herself isn't. Instead, she's searching for ways to belong. Offering her first book written in Italian is one solution. Each of these vignettes offers others. Roman Stories is more of an interior journey than a touristic travelogue.