It’s difficult to write about The Namesake. Jhumpa Lahiri‘s novel has a quiet style and a basic premise – the life of an American-born Bengali boy called Gogol Ganguli – but really isn’t about anything at all. There is no plot peak, no actualisation of the lead character, a misted-over narrative drive. It is like the story of a life that happens without any authorial intervention; a study in characterisation.
After an arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashmina Ganguli leave Calcutta for Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their fist child and only son, Gogol was accidentally named after Nikolai Gogol, the Russian dramatist and novelist whom Ashoke believes saved his own life. And so the scene is set for a story about rootlessness, racial and cultural identity, traditional and familial expectations; but really, through Lahiri’s cumulative, quiet writing style, it is more ostensibly a story about a boy growing up into a man, his family, his life and his loves.
Lahiri has a mastery of the small moments, and her observations ring with the clarity of truth. There are delightful, pure moments of expertly captured experience; and the layering of everyday times, piled up to create the story. It’s a clear, unshowy prose. As a man, living in New York, Ashoke is on a first date with a Bengali woman his parents have set him up with. In Bengali community gatherings as they both grew up, they knew each other, in that way children of a proximate age are pushed together at these events. Moushumi teases them in their quiet bar:
“…given that you’re a year older than me, I was taught by my parents to call you Gogol Dada.”
He is aware of the bartender glancing at them briefly, assessing their potential. He can smell Moushumi’s perfume, something slightly overpowering that makes him think of wet moss and prunes. The silence and the intimacy of the room disconcerts him. “Let’s not dwell on that.”
I am still struggling to judge, to critique, to write about this book. Gogol is a delightful child, a tortured teenager, a distant young adult, a penitent son. He is an absorbed, adoring boyfriend, and an absorbed, distant husband. He grapples with and never really comes to grips with his namesake: in the end it means nothing. In the study of his character there is little to grip onto: Lahiri hasn’t created imperfections and details to make her lead more likeable, that’s just the way humans are. There seems to be no deliberateness to his creation, which is perhaps a testament to her skills as a storyteller.
So where is the narratorial drive, where is the conclusion? I kept reading this book even though I was left feeling lacking, perhaps, after spending time with Gogol Ganguli. Perhaps it is because Lahiri’s writing instills a sense of authorial confidence: I want to be in the hands of this woman, she knows what she is doing. Slowly, skillfully, elements and facts and moments are revealed, and there is pleasure in that. But there was no joy. Lahiri is such a talented writer, and there is a deftness to her storytelling, but there seemed to be no passion, no meaning. Maybe it’s just my rather human pattern-seeking brain looking for more when there is none, when what there is is enough, but for me, The Namesake was not enough. I enjoyed this book, but I wanted more.