P’s Parties.

We’ve discussed Jhumpa Lahiri’s switch to writing in Italian before, and I’m freshly impressed every time I read something by her (I really should acquire one of her books instead of depending on the New Yorker to feed stories to me); I’m shoehorning her latest, “P’s Parties” (translated by Todd Portnowitz; archived), into LH because language is something of a plot point:

They came from different countries, for work or for love, for a change of scenery, or for some other mysterious reason. They were a nomadic population that piqued my interest—prototypes, perhaps, for one of my future stories, the kind of people I’d have the chance to meet and casually observe only at P’s house. In no time at all they’d manage to visit nearly all parts of our country, tackling the smaller towns on the weekends, skiing our mountains in February, and swimming in our crystalline seas in July. They’d pick up a decent smattering of our language, adapt to the food, forgive the daily chaos.


My memories of the past five or so parties had blurred together. Each year was different, and each year, for the most part, was the same. I made the same small talk I’d forget a minute later, I practiced my two rusty but still passable foreign languages, which I’d always brush up on a bit.


The woman spoke in a strange mix of her language and ours, but it was easy enough to follow.


Because of the girlfriend, we never spoke to each other in Italian. He gushed about the multiethnic neighborhood where they lived, where they’d go out every night of the week to eat food from seven different countries. His answers to my questions were polite but brief. We conversed in a language I struggled to keep up with, a sensation that I enjoyed at P’s house but that here, with my own son, felt frustrating and artificial.

But really, I’m just hoping to entice people to read it; it reminds me of Virginia Woolf, and I don’t have much higher praise than that.


  1. Hari Kunzru’s NY Times review of La Tercera, by Gina Apostol, has lots of passages of Hattic interest:

    There are nearly 200 languages spoken in the Philippines, according to some government estimates. The national language, known as Filipino, is a standardized version of Tagalog, one of six languages with more than a million native speakers. Some languages, such as Arabic and Hokkien Chinese, arrived through trade and religious conversion. Others came with foreign invaders. The archipelago was a colonial possession of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years, and an 1849 law forced Filipinos to adopt Spanish surnames from an official list, with certain letter ranges being more or less randomly assigned to particular provinces. Whole towns of people found themselves with names beginning with the same letter.

    After the Spanish were overthrown in 1898, Filipinos, who were preparing for independence, found that their nation had been sold to the United States for $20 million. Hard on the heels of this new colonial occupation, a transport ship carrying 600 teachers arrived, to disseminate English as a “civilizing” medium. A 1935 constitution established English, alongside Spanish, as an official language. During World War II, the Philippines was occupied by the Japanese, leaving yet another linguistic deposit.

    Amid such a polyglot swirl, what tongue should a Filipino literature speak? The answer given by Gina Apostol in her sprawling, ambitious new novel, “La Tercera,” is — all of them. The book’s substance is a story about a New York writer who is forced to come to terms with her difficult family history, but its most profound preoccupations are linguistic.

    Like Apostol, the narrator, Rosario, was raised on the Philippine island of Leyte, and her first language is Waray, the seventh most commonly spoken in the country, though she was forced to learn Tagalog at school. Her life, like that of all Filipinos, is a constant act of translation. She finds that “Spanish was for the outside things, the things you could make.” So la mesa is the table, la cama is the bed and so on, but “Warays kept their words for the inside, the things that made you up.”

    The low status of Waray means that “I was 27 when I found actual Waray words in a book.” At the time, Rosario isn’t even in the Philippines, but at the New York Public Library, and she doesn’t recognize them because they are hopelessly garbled, appearing in a text that has been “translated into English and listed by an Italian chronicler for a French audience about the trip of a Portuguese explorer.”

    As Rosario grows up and eventually makes the decision to leave her country to pursue a career as a novelist, she finds herself confronted at every turn by the political meanings of language. As a university student, she observes that “people spoke in fragments, neither Tagalog nor English, as if sounding broken mattered.” If inarticulacy “matters,” it is as a mark of authenticity, a way to signify distance from both Tagalog-speaking majoritarianism and the lingering grip of American empire. […]

    “La Tercera” is a whirlwind of narrative, which deploys all the linguistic and cultural resources at Apostol’s disposal to tell the story of Adina, Rosario and their ancestors. It is, at times, frankly bewildering to someone who doesn’t share all those languages, who doesn’t know the songs, the history, the taste and texture of local foods. It is hard to read a book studded with so many words I don’t recognize, or to have to stop and look up crucial references. And this, of course, is the point.

    Apostol’s bold and laudable choice is to assert what the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant has called “the right to opacity.” To demand transparency — to insist that “La Tercera” confine itself to words that I share — would be to demand a kind of silencing, a reduction of the riotous complexity of Filipino expression to the fragment that happens in English. “La Tercera” expects a lot of non-Filipino readers, but the effort is profoundly rewarding, opening up a glorious new understanding of a country and a culture that ought to mean more to Americans than a twinge of guilty conscience. For a Filipino, I suspect reading it might just feel like coming home.

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