The Namesake book review

My sister gave me the Namesake for my birthday. She had originally read it shortly after my father died, and had identified strongly with the themes of parental loss and immigrant displacement. She also noticed a strong similarity in its narrative to my and my brother’s life. Unfortunately, Loan never a chance to read the book, at least that I’m aware of ( pour some liquor for you dude ). I finished it over the course of a few longish sittings on the bus and before going to bed. It’s not an overly long book, but it seems jam packed with detail, the narrative never resting for very long before propelling forward. If you don’t read any further, then here is a summary assessment: Excellent. If you are a first/second generation immigrant to America, this book is highly recommended.

SPOILERS BELOW! I’m going to discuss some specific sections of the book here:

The narrative plot of the main character is scarily close to my own. In fact the similarities are so close that I often didn’t feel emotionally close to the character, but rather I felt a ghostly sense of deja vu. Is it truly tragedy that precedes immigration? My own parents lived through the Viet Nam war, and the father survives a horrible train wreck. In both sets of lives, the event forever colours the parents perception. Future events are always to be perceived through the cracked eyeglass of the past, bringing caution and suspicion of these new things. But it also gives energy and motivation to move and improve: a concrete sense of death and mortality prevents any waste of time. I don’t think I ever realized this about my parents until I had finished reading the book. I never could stand the overbearing and overzealous caution and fear with which they viewed things out of the ordinary to them. Recently, I broached the subject of going to Malaysia for a Vietnamese youth conference regarding establishing democracy in Viet Nam. Before, her instant fear of the Communist government giving me a hard time would have mad me angry, and irritated at her knee-jerk reaction. Now, I paused for a minute and remembered how her entire life turned upside down because of these events.

For as long as I could remember, I have had problems with my name. Similarly, Gogol struggles with his name. Not an Indian name, but a name of an obscure Russian author, he never truly understands why his father gives him the name. In the novel, his father explains to him that the name isn’t meant to remind him of the tragedy, but the salvation, and subsequent life of success and blessing the family has in the States. Did my parents feel the same way? Shortly after I finished the book, I discussed my name with my mom, and confirmed that I was named after the Vice-president in the democratic government’s regime. So what’s in a name? My name is nigh-unpronounceable by English speakers, often crudely contracted to "Hung", but the name is little better in Vietnamese, a girl’s name through and through, its excessive beauty only serving to provide sharp relief against my unusually large body and mannish features. Was it all a cruel joke? Or was it a way of my parents to embed a shard of hope in their greatest hope. I see now that my parents always hoped the government would return, that the rights would be set anew. Even as they exist along with the rest of the Vietnamese diaspora around the world, they cannot completely give up this hope that events 33 years ago would eventually right themselves. Why didn’t I see this sooner? For all these years I would shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes when asked about my name, (purposefully?) blind to its meaning.

Gogol dates a string of white girls, before marrying an Indian girl, and sadly, divorcing her later. Her betrayal struck me as the falsest note in the book, but maybe it did so because I innately refused to believe it. My disbelief was driven by the sharp sense of fear I felt at the event. Was this book my future as well as my past? Would I too come to love a Vietnamese Girl, only to be betrayed in the most demeaning, trivial way? Her betrayal comes not during storm and stress, but during plodding normality. The march of life towards inevitable marriage, compromise, and muddled satisfaction. I don’t know. Nothing is certain, that is one of the few things that is certain, but one cannot exist in a state of protection, under a veil of fear. My sister pronounced that the feeling of inevitability is what drove them apart. The conceded to the feeling of expectation, rather than follow the tumults of love. Did they ever truly love each other? I think his lack of participation in her friends lives, and her own secret French life is what drove them apart. What is it to love someone? Is it sacrifice? I guess I always associate duress with sacrifice: the gift of the unwilling. If you told someone you would give everything for them, and they demand it, did you really love them? And could they have ever really loved you? Gogol enters into this relationship shortly after his father dies, and the plot barely concerns itself with the rest of this family during the courtship. Perhaps this is his escape from his duty, his pretence that a marriage will heal his grief and ease his burden of sadness and (new) duty, now that his father is gone. If he had truly loved her, he would have let her go on her fellowship rather than letting her make the silent sacrifice. I think the silent sacrifice of the fellowship provides the seeds for her discontent. A friend of mine told me that marriage was the ultimate sacrifice. Maybe really loving someone means never letting them make that sacrifice.