How did “Love in Another Language” come about?
I never know how these stories come about. I like language. I’ve often played with the idea of a language in which the sound of a word is directly connected to the object it refers to. Of course, that’s the exact opposite of basic linguistic theory. We humans speak an amazing variety of languages—some of them truly extraordinary compared to our own—but this wonderful plenitude is rapidly disappearing. I wondered what it would be like for one of the last speakers of an onomatopoeia-like language. I imagine that such a terribly lonely speaker would want to preserve it, pass it on, teach it to others. I guess those ideas and others were going around in my head when I began to write.
By the way, most of the exterior facts in the story are, indeed, actual facts and are not made up. That includes everything from Claude Shannon to the tsunami that devastates Shozo’s life.
What role does Shozo’s paranoia play in the story? We don’t see it enacted, but we do see Sally’s description of its unusual manifestation.
Shozo’s paranoia is a very special kind: He believes that people are secretly working behind his back to do him good. That’s just about the reverse of conventional paranoia, and it struck me as rather comic. Oddly enough, Sally, the psychiatric social worker who is using Shozo as her dissertation subject, is nurturing his unique paranoia by covertly following him and surreptitiously doing him a good deed, like leaving him lunch. So maybe Shozo isn’t really crazy, or at least not crazy the way Sally thinks he is. And speaking of crazy, what about Peter Drock who “knew Sally was overly emotional and was probably falling in love with him,” when, as a matter of fact, he’s about as wrong as you can get? And he’s sure he’ll become famous when he finishes his book about language, but he’s not making progress because he loathes writing. Still, I feel a certain sympathy for him. Yes, he’s obtuse and ridiculously vain and self-assured without reason, but life is always outwitting him and he’s always a few steps behind everyone else in figuring out what’s happening.
There is a lot of quiet humor in this story—did it ever threaten to take a larger role? The Shozo character is so rich with potential.
I’m grateful you found the quiet humor in the story. When I was writing it, I sometimes wondered if the comic elements would be noticed. Near the end, when Peter’s East Coast woman, Erica, unexpectedly arrives, the comedy becomes almost farcical. At the same time, the characters go far deeper into the nature of reality, language, and mathematics. I think a lightness of tone, a sense of humor, and a lyrical view all help to bring the tale to a good end. That’s my hope, anyway.
The ending was wonderful—so unexpected, it made me slow down and then reread the dinner scene with Shozo, Sally, Peter, and Erica. Was there ever another ending you played with?
I never had any alternative endings in mind. It seemed to me that the conclusion grew naturally out of what had preceded it. I said earlier that I like language, and that’s certainly true, but it’s also true that I like mathematics. Because I couldn’t make up my mind about what I liked best, I spent the first two years of college at MIT, where I played around with mathematics, and the last two at Harvard where I indulged in language and literature. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at either.
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
I’m working on another book. I hope it’s a short one. At my age, it better be.
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