Characters in Aciman’s new novel enter into a courtship with each other and America
by David Holzel
In Harvard Square, Andre Aciman’s new novel, we meet a Tunisian-born Boston cabbie whose aggressive, rapid-fire spray of opinion and invective earns him the nickname Kalashnikov – Kalaj for short.
The unnamed narrator of this novel, set in 1977, discovers Kalaj holding court at a cafe near Harvard frequented by North African immigrants. The narrator is lonely and morose, having committed himself to spending the summer studying before retaking his comprehensive exams in literature, which he had just failed. He finds himself drawn to Kalaj, whose voice and presence dominates the little cafe, and approaches him with much the same nervousness as he might a woman.
So begins a buddy courtship, during which Kalaj proceeds to throw open doors and create opportunities for the shy narrator. Thanks to Kalaj, the narrator’s long hot summer fills with women and adventure. The narrator finds himself in a group of friends in orbit around the short-fused Kalaj, his fancies, his prejudices, his struggle against deportation and his outsize appetite for life.
The narrator is Aciman himself as a Harvard graduate student. He arrived in Cambridge, Mass., as something of a refugee. Born into a Jewish family in what was then cosmopolitan Alexandria, Egypt, Aciman and his family left in 1965, forced out by the Arab nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He lived in Italy and France, before coming to the United States to attend Harvard.
Aciman is the author of both fiction and memoirs (as well as a professor of comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). He says he doesn’t see a difference between the two genres.
“I don’t think there is any difference at all. I think it’s just a title that booksellers need to apply to a novel or to a book or to anything,” he says. “Between memoir and novel writing, the conventions for both are exactly alike. You need a plot, you need a story. You need a character.”
Where the story diverges from the real life events is in the telling. “In other words, you don’t invent facts, you just apportion them differently.”
Harvard Square grew out of a call Aciman received several years ago from The Moth, an organization that produces a series on true storytelling for public radio. In a preparatory phone call, Aciman told the producer the story of Kalaj. He quickly realized that he wasn’t cut out for performing, so he turned Kalaj into a short story instead, which the Paris Review published.
In the novel, the two men inhabit a common ground of their own devising. Neither is happy with his identity. “One doesn’t want to be Tunisian, the other doesn’t want to be Egyptian,” Aciman says. “One doesn’t want to be Jewish, the other doesn’t want to be Muslim. They want to be French.”
French is the language they speak to each other. They’re painfully homesick for the France they fell in love with as boys in North Africa. Despite his nostalgia, the narrator is also trying to become an American. As the novel begins, he is on his way to becoming a Harvard scholar and seeking inroads to the blueblood society that dominates Cambridge.
Kalaj wards off the seductions of America by heaping scorn on its culture and people. Everything is jumbo-ersatz, Kalaj contends, bloated and artificial. He inveighs against nectarines, which he derides as an artificial fruit, “engineered, stitched.”
When the narrator first stumbles upon Kalaj, he suddenly feels he has awakened from an America-induced stupor.
“What he suddenly hears in Kalaj is a different accent, a different way of observing the world, of being in the world that was part of his background but that he had been alienated from or has dismissed or outgrown,” Aciman says. “And he finds that this is very much like home. This way of talking, of disparaging every single thing, reminds me of my childhood, the voices I heard when I was a kid.”
Kalaj fulminates against Americans and their cleansing sprays: “mouth spray, hair spray, nose spray, foot spray.” Aciman says this American obsession with hygiene looks practically alien to someone not from the West.
“To a person born in the Third World, we’re machines. We might as well be ersatz. We’re artificial. We give our kids artificial food. Everything is false about us.”
The bond between the two men is magnetic. But unstable.
“They’re made for each other, except one is greater than life and the other is smaller than life,” Aciman says. “It’s like Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes. One is dull, the other one is exciting.”
They share a fantasy of France, but are near opposites in every other way. “He was proud to know me while, outside our tiny cafe society, I never wanted to be seen with him,” the narrator confesses. “He was a cabdriver, I was Ivy League. He was an Arab, I was a Jew.”
And “like all relationships, at some point there is a fatigue that sets in,” Aciman says.
The narrator eventually ends his friendship with Kalaj, but it happens in stages. Putting Kalaj behind him illustrates one of the themes Aciman says runs through his life.
“The big question in my life has always been loyalty. Am I loyal? Am I disloyal? Am I just human? Can I be better than who I am?”
While set in the near past, the time period is incidental to Harvard Square. What is essential is the foreignness of America to the novel’s characters and the life boats of language and culture they construct to wade through their dislocation. Kalaj doesn’t make it, but the narrator does, which gives him a lifetime to look back on his onetime friend and consider what is real and what is ersatz.