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Exiled by choice, shaped by chance

The Namesake: A Novel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Houghton Mifflin: 292 pp., $24

September 07, 2003|Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin writes regularly for Book Review, among other publications.

What's in a name? That's the question Jhumpa Lahiri explores -- somewhat doggedly -- in her first novel, "The Namesake." Lahiri made a reputation for herself in 1999, at 32, when she published "Interpreter of Maladies," a luminous collection of stories about first-generation Americans attempting to bridge the disorienting, often baffling cultural gaps between their native India and their adopted country. The book ultimately won the PEN/Hemingway Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Readers and critics gushed at her ability to encapsulate whole lives in a few short pages so quietly yet stunningly. Each story, neither crammed nor rushed, seemed as though it could be expanded easily to fill a whole novel, a whole world.

"The Namesake," although tidily under 300 pages, gives Lahiri room to stretch. Her novel spans more than 30 years in the life of a Bengali couple, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who emigrate from Calcutta in the late 1960s and raise two children in collegiate Massachusetts. When their son is born in 1968, they await a letter from his great-grandmother in Calcutta that will provide them with his formal name. But the letter gets lost in the mail, and the grandmother has a debilitating stroke. Under pressure to put something on the boy's birth certificate, they give him a "pet name," which by Bengali custom is the moniker used by family only. The pet name they settle on is Gogol, after Ashoke's favorite author -- whose stories he was reading when he nearly lost his life in a train wreck in India in 1961.

It's a name Gogol Ganguli comes to hate. When, to his mother's horror, his grade school class takes an outing to a graveyard to make stone rubbings, he of course can't find another Gogol among the tombstones. He is further mortified when a high school English teacher assigns "The Overcoat" in his honor and relates the miserable details of the Russian author's unhappy biography, including his reputed lifelong virginity and his spiral into madness and death before the age of 43. He assiduously avoids reading the author and eventually disowns his name, legally changing it to Nikhil before he heads off to Yale.

Lahiri's novel covers the major passages and rites in Bengali life and tracks the slow but steady incursion of American customs. Ashima and Ashoke travel from a marriage arranged by their parents in Calcutta to an antiseptic, lonely American hospital birth 8,000 miles away. Gogol's annaprasan, or rice ceremony, in which he is fed his first solid food by Bengali friends stepping in as uncles, is followed by Christmas trees, college and graduate school, several love affairs, jobs, family deaths and funerals, and marriage.

But whereas Lahiri's short stories are filled with myriad miraculous, understated epiphanies, her novel strains for continuity by returning repeatedly to the themes of names and trains. Gogol's parents insist he come home from college every other weekend, and his Amtrak rides between New Haven or New York and Boston heavy-handedly evoke his father's near-fatal train voyage on another continent, in another era. It's no accident that the fatal blow to Gogol's marriage is dealt on a train.

Lahiri's insistence on making a connection with Nikolai Gogol, whose writing exemplifies a satirical taste for the absurd outlandishness of life, seems even more forced. It is particularly baffling in a writer whose tone is utterly suffused with sober realism. When Ashoke quotes Dostoevsky's remark -- "We all came out of Gogol's overcoat" -- the allusion is nearly as much a stretch for the reader as it is beyond his teenage son's ken.

The intended message eventually comes through, though not as effectively as Lahiri might want. Nikolai Gogol's lowly, ridiculed clerk scrimps and saves for a new overcoat only to have it stolen by thugs, a loss that destroys him. Gogol Ganguli's epiphany, which may strike some as self-evident, is that life is essentially haphazard, shaped by accidents, which we need to accommodate as we plod along:

"In so many ways, his family's life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another. It had started with his father's train wreck, paralyzing him at first, later inspiring him to move as far as possible, to make a new life on the other side of the world.... And yet these events have formed Gogol, shaped him, determined who he is. They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend."

The strength of Lahiri's narrative voice has nothing to do with satire. Her writing is assured and patient, inspiring immediate confidence that we are in trustworthy hands. Lahiri beautifully conveys the emigre's disorientation, nostalgia and yearning for tastes, smells and customs left behind: "For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy -- a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts."

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