Namesake

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1805

Autobiography, as a form, began with St. Augustine’s Confessions (c. 397), a lucid memoir of what is was like to be a fifth century Christian seeker of salvation. Michel Goldberg’s autobiography, Ecorché Juif (1980; Namesake, 1982), is an even more lucid memoir of what it is like to be a twentieth century post-Christian antihero.

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Although he never uses the term, Goldberg is an antihero. Haunted by the fate of his Polish-Jewish father, Joseph Goldberg, who was sent to a death camp during the Nazi occupation of France, Goldberg resolved to kill Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo officer responsible for his father’s deportation. Given an opportunity to do so at minimum risk, however, he found that he could not kill. In 1976, he became a figure in the French media because of happenstance; the Air France airplane taking him home to France from a sojourn in Israel was hijacked by anti-Zionist terrorists to the airport at Entebbe, Uganda. There, Goldberg negotiated for the release of some hostages and special consideration for others before he himself was released. Then, he lost his job—a job which he considered unnecessary—after objecting to a needless reference in a corporate report to the Jewish background of a client who had proved dishonest. Finally, he found both relief and disappointment in the discovery that Joseph Goldberg’s death in a Nazi camp had not been heroic.

Goldberg’s mind-set is post-Christian. Despite his Jewish background, he received no training in the Jewish religion. As a child, he attended Mass, at his mother’s insistence, to hide his origin from Nazis and collaborators, but he already considered himself to be beyond religious needs.

Goldberg acknowledges no debt to Existentialism; he mentions Jean-Paul Sartre only once. Albert Camus’ efforts to find a reason not to commit murder apparently played no role in Goldberg’s failure to kill Barbie. Nevertheless, Namesake is pervaded by a sense that life is absurd. The author feels both triumph and misery that he has been well-paid to do a job which, in his opinion, did not need to be done, and he ends the book on a note of absurdity. His attitude toward the meaning—or meaninglessness—of life is similar to that of famous fellow-countrymen whom he does not claim to follow. Perhaps France’s experience in World War II under a collaborationist government which was not entirely alien or illegal promoted a sense of absurdity among many in France, a sense which Sartre defined but did not originate.

Whatever the influence of Existentialist philosophers on Goldberg’s thinking, they did not influence his style. In contrast to the philosophers’ tendency to abstruseness, Goldberg is direct and to the point. He never seeks to make the reader search for his meaning beneath layers upon layers of hidden truth. He can be ironic, but his ironies are always clear and obvious. When he leaves a question unanswered, he leaves it completely unanswered.

Like all competent autobiographers, Goldberg has a talent for introspection and for taking an objective view of his own feelings. He is remarkably adept at translating his complex and often paradoxical feelings into words. He mentions, for example, having been happier during World War II than after its end; he speaks of having heard the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony broadcast so often over BBC that he never felt comfortable with the idea that Beethoven wrote them; he tells of having no sympathy for his youngest child during the latter’s formative years. His use of words in putting these and other feelings on paper is remarkable.

Some enigmas are left. Goldberg claims to have come closer to a discovery of himself on three occasions: after failing to kill Barbie, after succeeding at Entebbe, and after discovering that his father did not die heroically. It is only after these discoveries, however, that the reader discovers all of what had been missing. Perhaps this is the only way to handle such a self-discovery, but it contrasts with the clarity of Goldberg’s other self-revelations. No concrete reason is given for his failure to kill Barbie. The lack of will is mentioned, but nothing is said about what caused the lack of will.

Although inclined to consider life absurd, Goldberg seems to believe that some actions are right and some actions are wrong. He judges Klaus Barbie as an evil man and condemns Bolivia, in which Barbie received asylum, for not allowing him to be extradited. Yet, Goldberg does not act solely from a sense of justice in seeking Barbie’s death. Barbie was chosen instead of another former Nazi leader—equally vulnerable and in Goldberg’s eyes even more culpable—because Barbie had been in charge of the Gestapo at Lyon, from which Joseph Goldberg had been deported. The author feels that killing Barbie would atone for his failure to accompany Joseph Goldberg to Lyon. The motive for wanting to kill Barbie is complex, but it involves the idea of justice as well as family considerations. The author does not make clear from whence he derived his concept of justice nor that he has such a concept.

Goldberg also considers his ill-treatment of his own wife and children to be evil. He is not specific about what he did to them, nor does his judgment of himself take the form of remorse. He does not subject himself to the kind of self-criticism for which St. Augustine is famous. He takes a detached view of his own evil, but he acknowledges that his inadequacies as a husband and father place him, for some purposes at least, in the same category as Barbie. He judges himself, but not with any emotion, and not with any enunciation of the source or nature of his standard of morality. Perhaps he himself does not know what his standard is or from whence he derived it.

Goldberg does not judge himself at all for his confrontation with Barbie. He does not mention any scruples about taking the law into his own hands, about dispensing with procedural guarantees, or about the possible consequences if others were to follow his example. Although he had intended to stand trial for killing Barbie, he had reason to suppose that his sentence would not be severe. Nowhere in the book does Goldberg differentiate between the Nazi crimes and crimes that might be judged as lesser, nor does he claim to have a standard for distinguishing between justifiable and unjustifiable acts of self-appointed justice against persons considered guilty of murder but excused by the law. This omission could be unfortunate. An attempted analysis of justifiable and unjustifiable acts of extralegal retribution would have fit poorly into the scheme of the book, but the consequences of omitting it could be grave, especially if the book comes to be widely read.

One act—or rather omission—for which Goldberg does feel intense remorse is his failure to join Joseph Goldberg on the latter’s fatal trip to Lyon, although by no standard of morality could he be faulted for this omission. It haunts both his waking hours and his dreams; he frequently dreams of a tattoo on his arm. The tattoo is a recurring theme and was the source of the original title of this book in French, Ecorché Juif, which loses its suggestiveness in translation.

Another matter which causes the author remorse is that, while he was in his teens, his mother legally changed his surname to Cojot—that of her non-Jewish second husband—partly in order to spare her son from persecution for being Jewish. Namesake, the title of the English translation, refers to the author’s personal search for the right to be again worthy of the name Goldberg.

Goldberg’s talent for simplifying complex themes involving many levels of consciousness serves him well in his discussions of the complexities of being a nonpious Jew in postwar France. With clarity he explains his maternal grandmother’s attitude of being both self-consciously Jewish and anti-Semitic; like many Jews in Western Europe, she was prejudiced against Jews of Eastern European origin because they were so obviously Jewish. Goldberg’s mother disregarded the family prejudice enough to marry Joseph Goldberg—an Eastern European Jew. Namesake contains excellent passages about the intricacies of Jewish self-hatred derived from Gentile anti-Semitism. Another well-handled theme is that of anti-Semitism taking new forms, or changing while remaining the same. Thus, European anti-Semites used Israel’s military successes in 1956 and 1967 as occasions to express admiration of Israeli Jews while insulting European Jews for allegedly not being as courageous as the Israelis. Known as Cojot during most of his adult life, Goldberg was in a good position to observe the subtleties of anti-Semitism. Because he was not identified as a Jew, nobody was self-conscious about expressing anti-Semitic prejudice and innuendo in his presence. Because he considered himself a Jew, he was sensitive to prejudice and innuendo in a way that no philo-Semitic Gentile could have been.

Equally annoying to Goldberg was the prejudice which he encountered during his sojourn in Israel—the prejudice of Israeli Jews against non-Israeli Jews. This often subtle prejudice was another blow to Goldberg’s identity.

It was at Entebbe that Goldberg began to accept himself as a French nonpious Jew. That identity helped him to win the confidence of the anti-Zionist hijackers of an Air France airplane. He also felt that his actions at Entebbe relieved him of some remorse for his failure to accompany his father to Lyon, and he took satisfaction in having one of his own sons with him in the hour of danger—although the son was released before Goldberg. He devotes more space to the apparent thinking of the hijackers than to that of his son, or of any other hostage. Sensitive though he is to the attitudes of others, Goldberg is more sympathetic to adventurers than to those who pay the price of the adventures.

In an age of Surrealism and of the stream-of-consciousness narrative, Goldberg shows that one can deal with thought, feelings, and consciousness without losing touch with reality. He is clear and concise in describing states of mind—a subject that many writers assume cannot be treated concisely. He is less clear, however, when dealing with motivation; sometimes, he seems to understand the motives of others better than he does his own motives. He handles recurring themes—notably that of his being “scratched”—capably. His lack of clear-cut standards of right and wrong—despite an unspoken assumption that some persons must pay for their acts and that Goldberg was wrong in some of his own—is understandable, considering the age in which he lives. In Namesake, Goldberg has made a genuine contribution to literature. He has told what it is like to be an antihero, and has done so in plain language.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33

Library Journal. CVII, August, 1982, p. 1454.

Listener. CVIII, October 14, 1982, p. 28.

The New Republic. CLXXXVII, December 20, 1982, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 5, 1982, p. 3.

Newsweek. C, October 4, 1982, p. 73.

Psychology Today. XVI, August, 1982, p. 77.

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