In André Aciman’s new Harvard Square, an Egyptian-born Jew and a Tunisian Muslim meet their limits
Harvard Square, the powerful new novel by André Aciman, opens with a scene of the most bourgeois of American family rituals: the college visiting tour. The book’s narrator, whose name we never learn, is accompanying his son to Harvard, after stops at many other campuses, and is shocked when the high-schooler bolts the admissions office, refusing to listen to the usual sales pitch.
It does not take long, however, for the reader to understand why the son has such a resistance to Harvard. Aside from everything else it stands for in American culture—whether tradition or snobbishness or scholarship or money—Harvard has a very particular meaning in the life of the narrator, who was a graduate student there decades earlier. And of course, the more meaningful the place is to the father, the more instinctively the son rejects it: “As I showed him around town, I kept wondering what it must feel like to walk with your father and watch him stop at places that couldn’t mean a thing to you. … Everything he sees is steeped in a stagnant vat of nostalgia, and for all its rosy cheeks, the past always gives off that off-putting, musty scent of old pipes and mildewed rooms that haven’t been aired in years.”
And yet, as the novel dissolves from present-day prologue to the main action, set in and around Harvard in the 1970s, it becomes clear that the narrator’s attitude toward the past is anything but nostalgic and remains far too agitated to be called stagnant. On the contrary, the story he goes on to tell is one of emotional and sexual turmoil, class envy and immigrant striving, and constant questioning of the meaning and value of American life. By setting his story in sedate Cambridge—whose inhabitants, according to e.e. cummings, “live in furnished souls”—Aciman is able to play off the complacent privilege of the place against the desperation of his main characters, the narrator and his friend Kalaj.
On the surface, this friendship—which is the center of the novel and practically its whole circumference, too—is a case of opposites attracting. The narrator is an intellectual and introvert, an Egyptian-born Jew who, after living in several countries, is now seemingly on the track to a privileged American life, studying 17th-century literature at Harvard. That elements of the narrator’s biography rhyme with Aciman’s—also a Jewish writer expelled from Egypt in the 1960s, an experience he wrote about in his classic memoir Out of Egypt—cements the authority of the narrator’s voice. Still, as a master Proustian, Aciman knows, and expects the reader to know, that identifying author with narrator is a tricky business.
On the other hand, Kalaj—as suggested by his name, which is actually a nickname, short for “Kalashnikov”—is all aggression and energy, a champion talker and “character” who puts the narrator in the shade. A Tunisian Muslim by birth, Kalaj has spent many years living in France and only recently arrived in Cambridge, where he makes a living driving an old-fashioned Checker cab. His real business in life, however, is seducing women, which he does constantly and methodically: “As in a game of penny poker, he explained, all that matters was simply the will to keep raising the pot by single penny each time; a single penny, not two; a single penny was easy, you wouldn’t even feel it; but you had to wait for her to raise you by a penny as well, which is when you’d raise her by another, she by yet another, and so on. Seduction was just keeping the pennies coming.”
In their home countries, the Egyptian and the Tunisian, the Jew and the Muslim, the intellectual and the cabbie, would probably never even meet, much less develop an intimate friendship. But transplanted to America, they have more in common than they suspect—first of all, a nostalgic love for the French language. They meet one day in Café Algiers, a Middle Eastern-themed coffee shop, when the narrator overhears Kalaj holding forth in French. “How come you speak French if you’re not French?” Kalaj demands, knowing the answer in advance: Both of them are colonials, shaped by a language and culture they are barred from truly possessing. This colonial identity—which Aciman describes as a kind of Mediterranean tolerance and irony, concealing depths of shame and rage—easily bridges the potential gulf between Jew and Muslim. They bond by telling ethnic jokes: “Why did the Arab store owner buy fifty pairs of jeans from the Jew?” “I don’t know.” “Because Isaac promised Abdou to buy them back at a higher price.”
As Aciman charts the deepening of this friendship, Harvard Square starts to resemble a mirror image of another celebrated recent novel about immigrants in America, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Netherland, too, was about the unlikely bond formed by a pair of very different immigrants in America—Hans van den Broek, a Dutch investment banker, and Chuck Ramkissoon, a small-time hustler and crook from the Caribbean. They bond over another shared legacy of empire, the game of cricket, and also navigate the cross-cutting imperatives of immigration, friendship, and class rivalry.
But while Netherland was an ironically lyrical tribute to the dying idea of the American Dream, Harvard Square is, like Kalaj himself, altogether more hard-bitten and skeptical. The favorite target of his assault-rifle rhetoric is America itself, which he derides as the land of the ersatz; his favorite symbol of this falseness is the nectarine, scientifically bred to be super-sweet. “People were being nectarized, sweet without kindness, all the right feelings but none of the heart, engineered, stitched, C-sectioned, but never once really born,” he rants. It follows that Kalaj himself is all authenticity, from his beat-up Che Guevara outfit to his explosive temper and his all-or-nothing demands on his friends.
Aciman skillfully shows that this kind of overpowering appetite both appeals to the narrator and appalls him. “He went out and grabbed; I stayed put. We were different. Like Esau and Jacob,” the narrator reflects—or, the reader imagines, like Cain and Abel, and we know how that story ends. The narrator’s personality is evasive, elusive, solitary; most of his days are spent cramming down endless books for his upcoming comprehensive exams, which he must pass or lose his place at Harvard.
Indeed, the very precariousness of his place in the structure of American privilege—just one “F” away from being cast out—makes him fear the example of Kalaj, who has no green card and could be deported at any moment. He is alternately drawn to his friend’s confident contempt and scared away by it; he dreads running into Kalaj around the Harvard campus, yet seeks him out at night to share all-you-can-eat chicken wings and cheap wine. He even wonders whether his timidity, his need for order and solitude, is some vice of Jewishness: “And why was I thinking like a tightfisted, skinflint Jew? The Jew who likes his little things in their little place … the Jew who doesn’t want others to open their heart, fearing he might have to open his.”
The real strength of the novel lies in Aciman’s understanding of the way we are shaped by our reactions to other people—the way every true relationship is a dialectic, from which neither party emerges the same. The whole of Harvard Square takes place over the course of a summer and fall, but in that time Kalaj forces the narrator to decide what parts of his identity he is going to embrace and what cast aside. These decisions are dramatized in the narrator’s series of abortive romances, each of which seems to stand for a different path in life. Niloufar, an older, cultivated Persian woman, offers a life anchored in Europe and the Middle East; Allison, a forthright American undergraduate from a wealthy family, stands for everything appealing about assimilation to America—and everything treacherous.
For the real secret of the immigrant, Aciman writes, is that the longing to be accepted by America is too strong to resist, yet too compromising to confess. When the mighty Kalaj is threatened with deportation, his façade of contempt breaks down and his bravado turns to tears. “Behind his wholesale indictment of America, he was desperately struggling not to give in in case America decided not to yield to him first. … He was, without knowing it, doing what he’d always done: flirting … but this time with a superpower.” As in so many classic novels before it, Harvard Square emphasizes both the friendliness and the callousness of America and Americans, the way the country’s great privilege serves as both magnet and goad.
By the end of the book, when the contrasting fates of the narrator and Kalaj have played themselves out, it becomes clear why Aciman chose to open the novel with a present-day prologue. As we read, we know that the narrator will end up becoming an American and a father of Americans. The question Aciman asks in this intense and thoughtful novel is whether that should be considered a triumph or a kind of betrayal.
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