Gogol, The Namesake

I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ from the library recently, I seem to have read her work in reverse order, starting with her most recent collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ a collection of stories of the experience of second generation immigrants and moving eventually to the book that won the prize.

As I mention in one of my first (and most read) blog posts ‘Why People Don’t Read Short Stories’, it is not my habit to read a short story collection straight through, I stop and start and read them at random and so it has been with both these enticing volumes.

I noticed the bookshop book club was reading ‘The Namesake’ this month and I had just read an excellent essay by Lahiri in the New York Times called ‘My Life’s Sentences’ relating to her love of certain paragraphs in books and the construction of a sentence, so I decided to read her only novel ‘The Namesake’ which had been on the shelf since seeing the Mira Nair directed film a few years ago, which I loved.

‘The Namesake’ refers to Gogol, the Bengali son of the Ganguli family who immigrate to America, a consequence of Ashoke’s (Gogol’s father) changed outlook on life following a serious train accident, a catalyst for change that impacts and shapes the lives of all his family, an event that he does not speak of to his son until he is an adult.

The train is used as a metaphor for change in the novel, many of the significant turning points in the lives of the characters take place during a train journey, which in itself transports people physically from the familiar to a less familiar location and is an environment that one usually cannot escape from.

Not speaking about things is common among these characters, aided by the distant third person narrative which skips from the present to the past, in particular the most dramatic events are seen through the prism of the past, drawing the reader into this protective shield from potentially harmful events.

Gogol, is American, but his Russian name, his Bengali family and their culture mark him as different to many in his community. His home life is different to the average neighbourhood child and he finds himself like many children of immigrants and third culture kids, living between two worlds.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all grow up seeking to affirm our sense of personal and group identity, absorbing those questions of Who am I? Where do I belong? Traditionally, the family and the community reflect that notion and it is not until we step outside those comfort zones that we might question it. But for children growing up among worlds and between cultures the awareness comes much earlier.

For most of his life once he becomes aware of the differences, Gogol does what he can to minimise them, seeking out the ordinary, trying to blend in. He tries to suppress his cultural links, portrayed through his choice of girlfriend and change of name.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Like Lahiri’s short stories, which portray composites of life for immigrants of first or second generations from India, this book highlights one family’s experience, the dilemmas that each generation face which will mould their characters. We follow Gogol’s journey, try to understand it, imaging ourselves in the shoes of another, witness to the culture clash within this one family.

I consider briefly the clash of cultures within my own small family and understand the inclination to put it toward the back of mind. Writing is a good option for expressing the pathways of these experiences. I wonder if the presence of a large community from the parent culture assists or hinders integration. I find these stories leave many more questions than answers; there is no guide, just individual experience and the necessity to persevere, to survive.

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30 thoughts on “Gogol, The Namesake

  1. I am decidedly not a short story reader but Lahiri is the exception to my rule. I rationed myself to one story a day when I read ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ because otherwise I would have swallowed them whole, I was so impressed by the writing. One of my book groups then read ‘The Namesake’ and followed it up with Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and if you haven’t read the Gogol I can recommend it.

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  2. You’ve struck a chord yet again . . . as did the essay you refer to by Jhumpa Lahiri. The very nature of identity, coupled with that cross-current of cultures, is what she captures so wonderfully in ‘The Namesake.’ Have not yet read ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ but I did read ‘Interpreter of Maladies,’ which hooked me on Lahiri’s gifts as a writer and, indeed, an interpreter of human nature.

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    • Thanks Deborah, isn’t the essay great. All her stories portray an incredible observational poignancy, so many differnt lives, different ways of coping, intergenerational impacts, rich in diversity and wonderful to absorb as a readers and observers ourselves.

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  3. Indeed, and sometimes the clash comes in other ways, as I’ve experienced over the last decade. I sometimes jump around when reading a collection of short stories as well.

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  4. I loved The Namesake! And the movie was really touching as well. I liked Interpreter of Maladies as well, but Namesake was more meaningful to me.

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    • Wasn’t it great the movie, very touching. The Namesake allows us to go much deeper into the story and characters than a short story I guess, I get the feeling many of her short stories could have evolved into novels if she wanted to go there.

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  5. Pingback: Summer Reads « Word by Word

  6. I really liked your post on this. Your comments about reading short stories resonate with me. I haven’t read any of Lahiri’s works before, but what you describe here in your review sounds exactly my kind of book. So much so, instead of adding it to my list I’ve already been able to order a copy from my local library so I’ll have this to look forward to next week sometime. Thanks!

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    • Thats wonderful that you will be able to indulge so soon and to read a new author. Not quite the same as the calibre of work you recommended to me, but this Lahiri’s work provides an interesting insight into cross cultural integration, the search for identity and the need to maintain tradition. Enjoy!

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    • Thanks Becky, I do hope we see much more from Lahiri, she has an interesting and thought provoking persepctive and creates characters it is easy to empathise with. I also love her love of words and would be interested to know what contemporary works she likes to read.

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  7. Lahiri is such a fine insightful writer- she is every creative writer’s role model. Thanks Claire!I loved Namesake, but her short stories really really make the cut…..

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    • It is wonderful that she has produced two collections of short stories, for me that means I can keep reading her for a long time as I like to savour them, the novel is over with too quickly, but I am equally happy that she has written the long form as well.

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  8. She is one of my favourite, I love more of her short stories than this one and only novel. I wonder why she is not writing another novel? Lahiri is an amazing writer.

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    • I read somewhere that she is writing another novel, but I also read that she has a couple of children now, so that no doubt contributes to the slow down, I am absolutely sure she is writing though and it was good to read her recent essay in the NY Times, showing how important words are to her.

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  9. This post caught my eye on my first visit to your blog (which is now in my Google Reader!). I love Jhumpa Lahiri and have read both short story collections as well as The Namesake. Like you, I loved the film, almost more than I liked the book!

    Reading Lahiri inspired me to acquire more short story collections by other authors, but I’ve been really bad about allowing them to languish on my TBR. I’m considering a reading project in 2013 to work my way through a few of them.

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      • Thanks for the link to that post, Claire. I planned to start by stacking all my short story books on my nightstand. I envisioned working through them one at a time as bedtime reading. But I’m giving your idea some thought now, and I rather like the idea of having a few collections on the go, dipping into each as the mood strikes.

        Also, can I say how much I love Aix-en-Provence? We spent a 2-week holiday in Ventabren, about 15km away, about 10 years ago now (sigh … so long ago …). We visited Aix often and it remains one of our all-time favorite places.

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  10. Pingback: The beauty of well-crafted sentences « kimberlysullivan

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