Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The naming of things

I've been nibbling away at Jhumpa Lahiris's The Namesake over the last week, finally finishing it up a couple nights ago.

Coincidentally, I stumbled across this recent commentary on the novel at Cup of Chicha, echoing some of my own sentiments.

From the first page, her use of the present tense bugged me. . . I get that she might have been trying to make some interesting comment on how the past stays with us by writing a lengthy family saga over a long period of years in the present tense, but while that’s an interesting intellectual exercise, it didn’t work for me as a reader.

Lahiri's style, though without flourish, I found to be almost graceless, droningly repetitive.

The story was nice enough, but there were no eureka moments.

I have not read the much-acclaimed Interpreter of Maladies, and I'm in no hurry to. I'm mildly curious as to what else Lahiri is capable of, but I won't be rushing out to buy her next book.

Why are all the reviews of The Namesake so glowing?

This review points out some of the differences between the advance reading copy and the published novel as evidence of the fine-tuning Lahiri engages in for just the right effect (even if it was lost on me).

See also the review in The New York Times.

The Washington Post review in writing generally about Lahiri, her success, and her real-life immigrant experience starts to get to the nitty-gritty of things.

"Naming is everything, a way to claim identity, to pass on notions of love, tradition and hope."

What's in a name? A hell of a lot. I agonized over naming Helena. Naming is an responsibility not to be taken lightly. Much as Adam named God's creatures. It's in the naming that we give something life, set it on its course. Impart meaning.

Like the novel's hero, I also grew up in an immigrant family, against whose culture and tradition I did my best to rebel. Most of that rebellion took place in my head, so it wasn't very successful, and that's all probably for the best.

I also had a "family" name, or pet name, that marked me as different. It caused confusion and grief in having to explain myself as a kid at school. That name was my childhood and is not much used outside my family anymore. But I'm oddly satisfied and reassured in knowing that my life can be distinguished into phases according to the name by which people knew me.

Although the story Lahiri tells isn't particularly insightful, I did feel connected to it through the coincidence of my own experience.

These words near the book's beginning delve into states of being that are states of mind, and are the most striking of the entire novel:

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. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.

The Namesake doesn't live up to its promise. But it's made me rediscover the obligation of living up to one's name.

No comments: