Sunday, February 08, 2009

Reading Jhumpa Lahiri's " The Namesake"

Jhumpa Lahiri narrates The Namesake in present tense, a form I don't care for in longer fiction (I find it unnatural to tell a long story as if it is currently happening, even as I realize that people often slip into this tense when telling stories of past events). Occasionally the narration will switch to past tense, letting the reader in on some past events of a particular character, events which helped lead to this present tense moment. In the final page of the book, Lahiri switches to future tense (though the final two sentences are present tense). I don't care for the present tense, but Lahiri is in control of it, writing it well and making the tense-switches smoothly. The tense is thematically important. To put a narrative in past tense is to already give it meaning, to provide its context and significance--to write in the present tense it to describe a "now" that is not already fixed in time, that is not already defined. The future tense suits the ending: Gogol has an open, unfixed future, sitting with an opened book, yet that book is a central symbol of his coming to terms with his past.

The third person narration shifts perspective--usually it enters the perspective of Gogol/Nikhil, occasionally sharing the perspective of Ashima (there is a deep connection between the lives of Gogol and Ashima--one could argue that Ashima is as much the protagonist of the novel as Gogol), at least once entering the perspective of Ashoke. In one chapter the perspective shifts to Moushumi, Gogol's/Nikhil's wife. This is the only chapter in which the third person narration refers to Gogol/Nikhil as "Nikhil"; in all other chapters, the third person narrator calls him "Gogol" (including narration of Gogol's/Nikhil's perspective, and including sections when every other character calls him Nikhil). As issues surrounding his name are central to the novel, the narrative choice to consistently call him Gogol (except for one chapter about Gogol's wife, whose relationship to him is tied up in a confused relationship to her own past, and for which reason she perhaps doesn't truly know him) is obviously significant. Even if he wishes to move beyond the name "Gogol," the third person narrative suggests he is still essentially, inherently, Gogol. However, in the final two paragraphs (which switch to future tense until the last two sentences, and which describe the inevitable moment of Gogol finally reading "The Overcoat"), the third person narrator describes him only in pronoun form. Perhaps here even the narrator is willing to leave his future identity open.

The narrative includes some conventional forms to structure events. There is foreshadowing (the death of Ashima's father forshadowing the death of Gogol's and Sonia's father, Gogol's affair with a married woman foreshadowing Moushumi's affair), and there is the motif of trains for transition (several life-altering events occur on or in relation to trains). But I actually find the text subtle. Some of the conflicts of The Namesake are common to literature about children of immigrants (tensions of identity, new and old traditions, etc.), but these themes are handled in a quiet, inobvious way. Many of these conflicts are implicit to Gogol's romantic relationships, underlying them rather than being pronounced by them.

Lahiri describes the food characters prepare and eat in specific detail. No matter what I do, I cannot read descriptions of preparing or eating food without thinking as a vegetarian. It may simply be an extension of life into reading--as a (mostly vegan) vegetarian, I must be consciously aware of all the food I ever eat. That heightened awareness of food is hard to set aside when I turn to a book. Perhaps worse, I find myself taking note of whether and how much fruit and vegetables the characters are eating. This is stupid and absurd, yet again, it is an extension of my own life habits into my reading.

Reminds me of
Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Lan Samantha Chang's Hunger, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, David Mura's Where the Body Meets Memory


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