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Saturday, February 16, 2008


Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, is another book that looks at the immigrant experience in America, seeking to explore the complexity of the relationship between people and countries and cultures. What makes The Namesake so intriguing is that it tracks two generations simultaneously, and without being judgmental makes us aware of the difficulties inherent in finding one’s way through culture’s maze. As the lives of Lahiri’s characters unfold, we often are forced into value judgments we might find unexpected.

The Namesake’s main character, Gogol, receives his name as an accident, yet the name has a profound and deep meaning to the boy’s father—a meaning of which the reader is aware but of which Gogol does not learn until he is a man. Complicating this issue is the Bengali custom of two names, a public and private, a pet and a good name, a type of divided self—one for family and friends, and one for the outside world. That custom does not translate from the Bengali culture to the American one, and this culture clash becomes major for our protagonist.

Don’t allow me to sound too serious. This is rich, descriptive writing, and I finished the book with a compassionate sympathy for the characters of this family saga, particularly for Gogol, somehow caught in the middle and not quite ever having a feeling of belonging.

I could not help coming away from the book with certain personal feelings reinforced. When immigrants come to this country because of its rich opportunities and then reject everything other than what America does for them personally, thereby choosing to remain outsiders, I feel remote. When immigrants try to become part of the American fabric yet keep their cultural identity, I feel incredibly sympathetic because they’ve chosen a difficult path. I sympathize for the children who are forced, at times, to choose between the two, something very difficult for parents if the choice is for the new culture. These issues are explored in The Namesake. Follow this link to an interview where Jhmupa Lahiri talks about some of these things.

The Namesake reflects this Indian experience, but it is universal to all immigrant experiences. My father used to tell of coming home from kindergarten and refusing to speak to his mother in any language other than English. That was how one succeeded in this country. My grandmother decided to go to school herself.

Read this novel on your vacation. You will come away with a good feeling and probably a better understanding of the cultural clash, a battle every immigrant faces.

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