Gogol wrote a story once
about Akaky, a poor clerk,
a doleful, dedicated dunce
who did mere documentary work.
Although his salary was meager,
he bought a coat beyond his means,
like people who because they’re eager
to look great buy expensive jeans
they can’t afford. It isn’t hard
today to updat your couture.
With Visa or a MasterCard,
no one today needs to be poor,
but for Akaky this was not
the case. Since he could not afford
the overcoat quite soon his lot
was by all to be predatored.
Underneath the overcoat
you’ll find a body of a most
misunderstood man. Gogol wrote
about the way the way the owner’s ghost
avenged the way that ruffians stole
the coat from him while he still needed
to coat to keep him warm is droll.
The moral of the story––read it,
as well as what Jhumpa Lahiri
midrashically transformed into
a fable that is far less dreary,
no less for Hindu than for Jew––
is that in this world any justice
you may expect to see won’t come
until your body, turned to dust, is
made posthumously cold and dumb.
Inspired by Nikolia Gogol’s masterpiece, “The Overcoat, ” and by “Namesake, ” a movie based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, in which the hero is named Gogol by his father, who was reading “The Overcoat” in a train that crashed not far from Calcutta. Gogol’s book saves his life because people looking for victims saw the book moving on the ground where he was lying, still holding onto it. Stephen Metcalf reviewed Jhumpa Lahiri’s book Stephen Metcalf in the NYT, September 28,2003:
Lahiri herself was born in London, raised in America and is of Indian descent. With a background similar in outline to that of Zadie Smith, she nonetheless arrived at an entirely different imaginative enterprise. She renounced the writerly flourish, never once played the exotic and - perhaps most astonishing - scaled her characters to actual human existence. (In a typical Lahiri story, we find ourselves milling in and around Harvard Square. Her eye is keenest for that pleasant, humdrum drift of academic life when one is not an eminence.) Self-effacing as it was, ''Interpreter of Maladies'' became a word-of-mouth phenomenon and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize. It was that rare success: remarkable for being so thoroughly deserved. Just where did that melancholy poise come from? ''Read all the Russians, '' Ashoke Ganguli's grandfather tells him in Lahiri's new novel, ''The Namesake, '' ''and then reread them. They will never fail you.'' On his way to visit his grandfather in Jamshedpur, Ashoke is dutifully rereading his favorite story, Nikolai Gogol's ''Overcoat, '' when his train derails. Lying amid the wreckage, almost passed over for dead and clutching the surviving pages of his book, Ashoke manages to wave meekly. As a result, he is rescued. And as a result, he lives, he marries, he moves to America and has a son. Faced with hospital red tape - the infant cannot be released without a proper birth certificate - Ashoke is forced to name his child before he has received instructions from his grandmother, who must be consulted on this vital decision. At a loss for words, Ashoke mutters ''Gogol.'' How like Lahiri to have a name passed down along such a peculiar and delicate chain of accident. Significant as it is for the reader, ''Gogol'' only fills the young American Ganguli with feelings of dissonance and shame. Like Stephen Dedalus, who stared at his signature on the flyleaf of his geography book, most of us slip through childhood's first existential porthole and find our own names profoundly alien. But the feeling infiltrates young Gogol's entire life….
Its incorrigible mildness and its ungilded lilies aside, Lahiri's novel is unfailingly lovely in its treatment of Gogol's relationship with his father. This is the classic American parent-child bond - snakebit, oblique, half-mumbled - and in Lahiri's rendering, it touches on quiet perfection. As a young boy at the beach, Gogol wanders off with Ashoke one day in search of a lighthouse. (The echo back to Virginia Woolf is surely intentional.) They walk and walk, ''past rusted boat frames, fish spines as thick as pipes attached to yellow skulls, a dead gull whose feathery white breast was freshly stained with blood.'' Finally they reach the lighthouse, only to discover that they have forgotten their camera. ''Will you remember this day, Gogol? '' his father asks. ''How long do I have to remember it? '' Gogol asks in return. ''Try to remember it always, '' his father replies, leading him back across the breakwater. ''Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.'' It's as if Lahiri were saying: in America, where so little is suitably customary or ceremonious, there might at least be this. Memory, unaided by even a photograph, lays a claim on us that is so much more exacting for being so perishable. This is my novel, such as it is, Lahiri is also saying: in a world of eroding kinship, the story of one modest, haphazard stay against oblivion, summed up best, of course, by the name.
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Comments about this poem (overcoat by gershon hepner )
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