Following a fatal crash on a train to Jamshedpur in 1961, Ashoke Ganguli attributes his survival to Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, whose compelling tale of impoverished Russian government clerk Akaky Akakievich (‘The Overcoat’, 1842) kept him awake and out of the sleeping bunk that was ultimately, inescapably, crushed. So, seven years later, Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel begins in a small Massachusetts apartment with the birth of Gogol Ganguli, tracing his story from that fateful night, through the small village in Calcutta where his parents met, by way of their immigration to the west, and on his own journey into adulthood as a second generation American. The story is told in Lahiri’s trademark style — passive, tender, and brilliantly subtle, tugging gently on loose threads of meaning that are ultimately never tied — from the perspective of four central characters, spanning four decades and three continents. It is at heart a story of identity, destiny, personal mythology, and the meaning of names; the power of naming. Though the pained protagonist will later change his name by legal deed, to the narrator — to the reader, to his family, to himself — he will always be Gogol.
I didn’t actively dislike Gogol, but a reviewer on goodreads writes that she wished the story had centred instead upon his eventual wife Moushumi, and this was my first thought upon closing the book. Not only does she “do something“, she is a truly compelling character: a bright beautiful academically-driven young woman in the true post-Roth American tradition. Where every other character in the book seems acted upon by the culture that surrounds them, Moushumi uses travel and movement to reinvent herself, to live out different lives, to shape her own reality. I loved reading her backstory, and seeing things from her perspective for those few brief paragraphs. That she is the only character beside Gogol and his parents to take control of the narrative is testament to her strength, but in fact each of Gogol’s girlfriends enlivened the story, and I certainly felt far more interest and empathy for their fates than I ever did for his. While we are reminded often of the great leaps of faith taken by their parents — the arranged marriages, the immigration, the terrifying leaving-behind of it all — the characters of the younger generation (of immigrant descent or otherwise) seem to persistently circle back to their adolescence. Returning to the family home, returning to past loves, never quite growing out of student life; prisoners to the comforts, jealousies, insecurities, and desires of the past.
“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1937) Food is often a central motif in narratives of cultural displacement, and in Lahiri’s opening scene a heavily pregnant Ashima tries to recreate a popular Indian snack using Rice Crispies, peanuts, and a host of veg and spices. “Tasting from a cupped palm, she frowns; as usual, there’s something missing.” The metaphor carries — this persistent murky sense that something isn’t quite right is what differentiates The Namesake from so many diaspora/second gen narratives. The reader is privy to several scenes of ingrained cultural prejudice and microaggression — we see Gogol being teased through his first years in school, hear his internal alarm bells at the smirks and slights his parents receive out in public, feel his under-the-skin irritation at dinner parties when pushed to admit where he’s “really from”. But there’s a deftness of touch here, a refusal to lay everything out in easy terms, to detail the existential horror of cultural alienation, as Xiaolu Guo does, or slip into thinly-veiled straight-up cultural criticism à la Adiche (both of which I loved, to be clear). Instead we are immersed in the physical and emotional experience of Lahiri’s characters, understanding how and what they feel — if not always exactly why.
In one of the novel’s closing scenes we wander with Gogol through the streets of New York City, noting the World Trade Center “looming” and “sparkling” in the distance with an interest that is architectural, brief, and benign. Though published in 2003, this is a very pointedly pre-9/11 narrative, steadfastly refusing to collude with the reader’s dread knowledge of what is to come, its action tapering to a close in the final weeks of 2000. Despite Lahiri’s complex rendering of the immigrant experience, her characters pass through airport terminals and jettison across the world with all the ease of pieces gliding across a chessboard, with a lack of complication — or narrative exposition — hard to imagine today. Strapped into their seats with headphones on and Bloody Mary in hand, they are blithely unaware of experiencing a fleeting golden moment in history, when travel and communication technologies created true global citizens. To my knowledge Lahiri is yet to engage with the events of 9/11 in her fiction, but I’ll be interested to see how the meaning of that day has infiltrated her almost utopically globalist worldview when I come around to reading her more recent work.
The Namesake is a thoroughly enjoyable read, but in the end it fails to pack the punch of Lahiri’s short stories. Pick up The Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and skip ahead to ‘Sexy’ to get a real sense of just how good she can be. If you enjoy Lahiri’s passive tone and emotional complexity, give Steve Martin’s Shopgirl (2000) a try. If you’re looking for a true intercultural intergenerational contemporary classic, do not pass go, head straight for White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000).