19 May 2011

Post 383: The Namesake

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. ISBN: 9780395927212.

At it's root, The Namesake is about a young man trying to find out who he is. However, Lahiri has done something amazing by combining not only the coming of age story, but also the first and second generation story, and the complexities of an "inherited" name for lack of a better word. Gogol's reaction to his name throughout the story is remarkable in that it accurately reflects where he is on the path to his adulthood.

During his childhood he only knows that he is Gogol and refuses his parents' attempt to give him a good name. Gogol has only known his pet name, and his American teachers don't understand the Indian custom. In this way both Gogol and his parents adapt to American culture. As Gogol grows older he is confronted with his differences. Now at the age where differences don't seem to matter, social skills are developing along with the inevitable hierarchy. While Gogol's name is not yet a hindrance to him, he decides to change it when he turns 18.

This could be seen as a declaration of adulthood, but rather it signifies a further step along the path. In some ways it is a late blooming teenage rebellion, the throwing off of parental ideals. It is not until Gogol returns home to his mother's house, after losing his father, that we see he is finally on his way to accepting who he is and becoming an adult and a complete person. It is when he finally picks up that long neglected volume of short stories given to him by his father that he realizes he is Gogol and Nikhil and his father's son. A child of India and of the United States. Both and neither and everything else besides.

That Gogol is lucky enough to have a name through which to track these passages into personhood makes him very lucky. While most of us at some point decide we hate our name, few of us have names that carry the same weight. We are lucky if we're not named after a parent's favorite actor or if our name is not picked out of one of the thousands of baby name books. The rest of us unlucky schmucks usually have to go through a lot of heartbreak with relationships, and while Gogol does have his fair share, it must be nice to be able to define oneself through one's relationship with one's name versus how they handled various breakups.

I talked a lot about the book in context, so I don't think it really requires a review link. In fact, I think this pretty much qualifies as a review, but it's an aspect that I haven't seen covered elsewhere.
LibsNote: Library Copy.

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