April 23, 2015

The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri

Mariner Books, 2004.


Four Stars


Like her short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s novel The Namesake is an exploration of the space between conflicting cultures. Gogol Ganguli is torn between the familiarity of his parents’ Indian traditions, and his need to fit in with his American peers – and he cannot manage to belong anywhere. Throughout the novel, he tries different methods of escaping from his family and his past. In his relationships, he jumps fully into the women’s lives, in an attempt to avoid his own reality. However, Gogol will never be happy until he can accept where he came from and use these experiences to make a life that is completely his own.


Gogol receives his strange name due to his father’s love of Russian literature, and the significance of a train accident. The motif of the train – moving from one city/culture/language to another – recurs throughout the novel. As much as Gogol tries to distance himself from his family, he is never more than a four hour train ride away from his childhood home. The act of travel is especially poignant regarding the immigrant experience, but the journey from childhood to adulthood can be just as traumatic. Gogol’s father recognizes this as they walk out to the end of a breakwater together, and he implores his son, “Remember that you and I made this journey together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”


Lahiri emphasizes the notion that everyday events are more important than the extraordinary when looking back on a life. On page 287, she sums up this idea:


“And yet these events have formed Gogol, shaped him, determined who he is. They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”


It is a comment on the randomness of life, how the events that shape us most might never have happened, that the petty details are what compose a lifetime of memories.


Apparently this novel was initially written as a novella and published in The New Yorker, and only later expanded into a full length novel. I think this explains a lot of the structural issues and the long stretches of writing without a lot of useful plot. However, it isn’t all bad – the summarized chunks of time create a sense of distance between narrator and reader, and almost make the writing feel nostalgic, as if Gogol truly was remembering a life lived so far, and utilizing his past to forge a clear path forward.

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