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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 1,838 words.)