Home > Jhumpa Lahiri > #20. The Namesake

#20. The Namesake

I first started to read this book years ago, after I had devoured the author’s two short story collections: “Interpreter of Maladies” and “Unaccustomed Earth.” I abandoned it after the first two chapters, finding the pacing too slow, and the subject matter thick/ dreary.

I experienced the same weariness with the first few chapters when I picked up the book again a couple of days ago. But this time, I plodded past the first two chapters and was delighted to find that the novel began a swift ascent almost immediately afterwards. Suddenly, I was invested in Ashima and Ashoke and their son Gogol. I read quickly, staying up half the night to complete the first hundred pages.

The Namesake is a family saga. Ashoke, who is pursuing a PhD at MIT, returns home to Calcutta to find a wife. He and Ashima agree to get married after a meeting one afternoon at her parents’ flat. They return to America together to start a life; not long afterwards they have a son. Due to a series of unexpected events, they fail to give their son a “good name” in time – a formal name by which he will be known to the world – and instead register him by his pet name – Gogol – a name that is meant to be private, known only to family and friends of the family. It is a name that is special to Ashoke, symbolizing for him hope/ the chance at a new life. But as a teenager, Gogol finds his name ridiculous, becomes conflicted by the person he could be with his “good name” as opposed to his pet name. In some ways, this conflict mirrors the conflict that Ashima and Ashoke (and many immigrants like them) face when they realize that they must create new versions of themselves in America. It is a clever metaphor, but I found myself becoming irritated by Gogol’s discomfiture, his constant whining about his unique name. The solution to a bad name is simple – change it. No need for all the soul-searching etc. That struck me as a particularly American indulgence…but, perhaps that was the point? In any case, the novel records Gogol’s life minutely, where he went to school, what he studied, where he worked, who he loved. In the background, the lives of his parents and his sister play out also, and they are interesting to read.

Jhumpa’s great strength is in the writing itself, and not so much the story. Her sentences are simple, graceful. Her descriptions are so rich that a scene unfolds clearly in front of your eyes; after she described Ashima making croquettes, for example, I felt as though I could get up at any moment and make croquettes myself – so easily I could see myself standing in my own tiny kitchen, rolling the potato over the minced meat to form an egg-shape, dipping the potato-egg in beaten eggs, rolling this over breaded crumbs, stepping back slightly from the pan on the stove with heated oil, so that when I dropped the croquettes in, the oil would not leap up to burn me.

There is some truly wonderful writing in this book. But because so much of the book centers around the issue of a name – on the premise that a name that one does not appreciate can escalate an identity crisis – my enjoyment has been dimmed a great deal. It does not seem to me an issue worth crying over; there are more important things; a name does not determine who you are or what you will become – your life choices do that for you. (That my frustration/ impatience with Gogol is very real is a compliment of sorts; he seems to me a real person; I want to pull him from the pages and slap him.)

3.5 stars

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Categories: Jhumpa Lahiri
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