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Enigmas of Arrival

The Namesake

by Jhumpa Lahiri
Houghton Mifflin, 291 pp., $24.00

Brick Lane

by Monica Ali
Scribner, 369 pp., $25.00

1.

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, a Bengali immigrant in America called Ashoke Ganguli is a fan of Gogol. When he was a student in India, his grandfather had told him to “read all the Russians, and then reread them.” Ashoke was particularly held by “The Overcoat,” the story of Akaky Aka-kyevich, a poor, much-trampled-upon petty clerk, who grows obsessed with a new overcoat, which he thinks would bring him dignity, and which, just after he has acquired it, is stolen from him. The character reminded Ashoke of his father, who had been a humble clerk in Calcutta. He broke down every time he read about the clerk’s humiliation and death. And the more he read, the more “elusive and profound” the story grew. “Just as Akaky’s ghost haunted the final pages, so did it haunt a place deep in Ashoke’s soul, shedding light on all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world.”

Much later in his life, when he is a professor of engineering in America, Ashoke quotes Dostoevsky to his uncomprehending, slightly resentful teen-age son, whom he has named after Gogol, and to whom he presents a volume of stories by the Russian writer. “Do you know what Dostoevsky once said?… We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat.” Gogol, saddled with a name he thinks he shares with no one in the world, is not impressed. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks before putting the book away, unread, on a “high shelf between two volumes of the Hardy Boys.”*

He doesn’t read “The Overcoat” even when it is prescribed in his high school English class, for he believes that “it would mean paying tribute to his namesake.” His American classmates have a different objection to the story. They find it “too long” and “hard to get through.” It seems that there is little they can relate to in the account of a drab, rather inarticulate man in nineteenth-century Russia sliding to his doom over the small matter of an overcoat.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the protagonist of Poor People (1846), the first novel by Dostoevsky, had no problem relating to “The Overcoat.” In fact, he found it uncomfortably close to his own experience. Like Akaky Akakyevich, he is a lowly clerk, and suspects that the story mockingly describes his own attempts to live an honorable life:

You hide sometimes, you hide, you conceal yourself inside whatever you’ve got, you are afraid at times to poke your nose out—because out of everything that could be found on earth, out of everything they’ll make you a satire, and then the whole of your civic and family life goes around in literature, everything is printed, read, mocked, gossiped about! And then you won’t even be able to show yourself in the street; I mean, it’s all so well demonstrated here, that now you can recognise the likes of us just by the way we walk.

Dostoevsky was still paying such backhanded tributes to his great precursor in a later novel, The Idiot. He was never less than aware that Gogol had first put a very ordinary person, “protected by no one, dear to no one, interesting to no one,” in the landscape of Russian fiction, and thereby made real whole lives and worlds that existed almost out of sight in Russia.

This achievement, for which the literary critic Belinsky praised Gogol and the early Dostoevsky, belongs these days to writers emerging out of the immigrant communities of Europe and America. It chiefly distinguishes the first novel by the Dhaka-born British writer Monica Ali, Brick Lane, which is named after a street in London’s East End that is known primarily for restaurants that offer mostly North Indian food and are more often than not run by Bangladeshis. Its main characters, like those of Jhumpa Lahiri, are Bengalis. But, unlike Ashoke Ganguli and his family, Chanu and Nazneen are Muslims from Bangladesh, and they belong to the lower, rather than middle, class, leading lives in contemporary London that seem no less covert and full of yearning than those of the petty officials of nineteenth-century St. Petersburg:

He started every new job with a freshly spruced suit and a growing collection of pens. His face shone with hope…. He worked hard for respect but he could not find it. There was in the world a great shortage of respect and Chanu was among the famished.

Much of the novel is told from the point of view of Chanu’s wife, Nazneen, who as a young woman surrenders herself to fate in the way her mother wants her to (“If God wanted us to ask questions, he would have made us men”). Only eighteen years old, she leaves Gauripur, her village in Bangladesh, after her arranged marriage to the forty-year-old Chanu, and travels to a wholly unknown and largely bewildering country.

The realist novel, a product of the European bourgeoisie, usually depends for its effect on a heightened consciousness of individuality, or on the struggle against fate that Nazneen’s mother thinks is futile. Ali set herself a difficult task in choosing as her main protagonist someone whose English consists of three words, “sorry” and “thank you,” and who, confined mostly to her small flat, knows no one apart from a handful of Bengali women.

In the early pages, which describe Nazneen’s arrival in a London of graffiti- and drug-ravaged housing developments, Ali compensates for the plainness of her character’s inner life with sharp perceptions of her dreary physical world and of the weird white people who live in it:

The women had strange hair. It puffed up around their heads, pumped up like a snake’s hood. They pressed their lips together and narrowed their eyes as though they were angry at something they had heard, or at the wind for messing their hair.

She is bemused, too, by her husband, Chanu, his obsession with promotion in his minor job with the London city council, his rants against the English people he describes as “ignorant types,” his readings in history and literature, his certificates in philosophy, and his authorship of a short story titled “A Prince among Peasants.”

She looked at him for a long time…. His eyes, small and beleaguered beneath those thick brows, were anxious or faraway, or both.

Nazneen is pursued by memories of the life she has left behind: of walking through the paddy fields with her sister, Hasina, of rain falling as she dresses her mother’s corpse for her funeral. “It beat down on the tin roof, it hit the ground and bounced jubilantly up, it hurled fat globs through the doorway.” She tries to suppress her panic and boredom through regular prayer and readings in the Koran. However, she seems more engaged by ice-skating on television:

While she sat, she was no longer a collection of the hopes, random thoughts, petty anxieties, and selfish wants that made her, but was whole and pure.

It is late in her time in London—fifteen years after her arrival, long after the death of her first child (powerfully evoked by Ali), when her two daughters are in their early teens—that she begins to step out of her insular world. And it may be that faced with the void of these uneventful years, no more bearable in fiction than in actuality, Monica Ali decided to give Nazneen’s sister, Hasina, who lives in Bangladesh, a large presence in the novel. Ali uses the old-fashioned device of letter-writing to present Hasina’s experience of life in Bangladesh; it helps her cover rapidly the long years during which Nazneen raises her two daughters, and move to the novel’s denouement in 2001.

Hasina rebelled early against her fate, but her choices have not worked out well. She elopes with a young man who turns out to be unstable and violent. She works at a garment factory in Dhaka, and is raped by an elderly benefactor, before being forced by poverty into prostitution. Her story may sound a bit too action-packed and lurid, but then life in places like Dhaka still tends to melodramatic brutality of the sort that began to fade out of European literary fiction in the nineteenth century.

Still, the effort to render a commonplace third-world atrocity in an European art form tells on Ali’s prose, which, suitably plain for the most part, struggles to find the correct register in Hasina’s letters, wavering, among other things, between the Trinidadian patois familiar to us from V.S. Naipaul’s early fiction (“she respectable like hell living in London and everything”) and an abrupt poetic ambition (“Mattress hold me like lover”). Then, at times, Hasina sounds more like a travel writer from England than an oppressed Bangladeshi woman, especially when she reports on the rickshaws in Dhaka painted with the face of Britney Spears.

Although Hasina’s letters expand almost unmanageably the scope of the novel, they also allow Monica Ali to highlight an irony. The woman in Bangladesh who rebels against her fate ends up longing for the security of convention. “Sister I know how you enjoy to leave your flat,” she writes after her second, more stable, marriage, “But I have come inside now. How I love the walls keep me here.” Nazneen herself is not sure whether the greater options of self-refashioning available, at least in the abstract, in the society she lives in necessarily lead to happiness:

In Gowipur, a sweetmaker was a sweetmaker, a shoemaker was a shoemaker, and a carpenter was a carpenter. They did not want to be teachers or librarians. They were not waiting for promotions. They did not make themselves unhappy.

As it turns out, Ali doesn’t much dramatize these contrasting visions of human fulfillment. She seems more interested in making Nazneen undergo the sentimental education of characters in European and American novels. After Nazneen leaves her almost wholly secluded life she begins an affair with a younger Muslim called Karim. Ali describes sensitively the growth of physical attraction between Nazneen and Karim, and the racial politics of the East End—the stand-off between English Islamophobes and increasingly radicalized Muslim youth—that draws them closer together. However, as the relationship progresses, and Chanu continues to flounder, it is hard not to feel that as the housewife driven by boredom to illicit romance, Nazneen is a victim of Bovaryism, doomed to ineffectual remorse and, perhaps, suicide.

As the novel ends, it is surprising to see her emerging confidently from her affair. She discovers Karim is immature and drops him. She dances to pop music in her room and goes ice-skating. Her transformation seems a bit abrupt when she refuses to join Chanu in his endeavor to begin a new life in Ban-gladesh, preferring to be a single mother in London.

After denouncing Gogol for exposing his private life in “The Overcoat,” the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Poor People concedes that “it would have been all right if towards the end he had at least improved, toned things down….” Ali succeeds brilliantly in presenting the besieged humanity of people living hard, little-known lives on the margins of a rich, self-absorbed society. But in the end, Ali’s empathy for disadvantaged Muslim women like Nazneen seems to have made her endow her fictional character with a will greater than what the reader of her novel has come to expect.

  1. *

    Cheap and easily available Soviet translations meant that educated Indians in previous decades often knew Gogol and Dostoevsky better than they knew Flaubert and Henry James, and some of them in the Communist-dominated states of Kerala and West Bengal even named their children after their favorite authors: a large number of Gogols, and, more disconcertingly, Lenins and Stalins, exist in India today.

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