Friday, November 29, 2013

Naming Names

Two good things happened this week: I got the news that one portion of the collaborative project I worked on this summer on Shalamov's Kolyma Tales will be published next fall.  (In one of the most prestigious journals of Slavic Studies in the US--The Slavic and East European Journal.)

I also read a good book.  Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (2003).

I actually didn't realize until I began reading it that Lahiri is originally from Rhode Island.  Much of the novel takes place in the suburbs of Boston and in the cities of New Haven and New York, and key scenes take place on the Metro North train that runs the I-95 corridor between NY and Boston.

So that was a fun feeling for me: having a kind of personal connection to the places and sites mentioned.

But that certainly wasn't the sole reason I liked Lahiri's novel.  I think she is a beautiful writer: as I mentioned in a previous post, I read her short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies, several years ago, and although it wasn't an all-time favorite, I did like it and I wanted to read more of her work.

The Namesake traces several decades in the life of Gogol--later "Nikhil"--Ganguli, the son of Bengali parents who emigrate to the United States in the 1960's.  It examines issues of acculturation and identity, using the motifs of travel, relationships, and loss.

In particular, Lahiri highlights the drama of Gogol's name: his parents give him the name of his father's favorite 19th-century Russian author, in an act that simultaneously invokes a very specific episode of his father's past in Calcutta (sorry, no spoilers in my blog posts!) and compensates for a coincidental gap that occurs in the family's transition from Bengali culture to the United States.

She thus situates her protagonist's name--and his identity--on a complex intersection of "East" and "West" and uses this as a way of organizing her novel's plot and characterization.  Unlike many novels that depict different generations of a family coping with the facts of emigration and transitioning between cultures, Lahiri doesn't simply focus on the tensions and psychological conflicts--she considers the compromises and resolutions as well.

The question of what a name means, what it signifies both to the individual him- or herself, what it invokes, and how it connects a person to the world around him or her--both the world that exists today and the world of the past, that may or may not be in the process of disappearing completely--offers a really interesting way of thinking about social and individual identity and the role that memory plays in each.

And, as I said, Lahiri is a wonderful writer.  In one of my favorite scenes of the novel, father and son are on the beach in Cape Cod in early winter.  The father walks farther and farther out, across the breakwater to "the narrow, final inward crescent of sand" and the lighthouse.  Although he is still quite little, his son Gogol follows him. 

When they reach the end, they realize they forgot to bring the camera.

The father says, "We will have to remember it, then."
"They look around, at the gray and white town that glowed across the harbor. Then they started back again, for a while trying not to make an extra set of footsteps, inserting their shoes into the ones they had just made. A wind had picked up, so strong that it forced them to stop now and then. 
"Will you remember this day, Gogol?" his father had asked, turning back to look at him, his hands pressed like earmuffs to either side of his head. 
"How long do I have to remember it?" 
Over the rise and fall of the wind, he could hear his father's laughter. He was standing there, waiting for Gogol to catch up, putting out a hand as Gogol drew near. 
"Try to remember it always, he said once Gogol had reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater ... "Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go."

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