By Andre Aciman
Friendship, loyalty, the feeling of belonging, and how tenuous these concepts are in reality for the faint at heart, are central to Andre Aciman's latest novel, Harvard Square.
In the summer of 1977, a Jewish graduate student at Harvard from Alexandria, Egypt, who will never go home, is hit by the summer doldrums. He has failed his comprehensives, has one more chance to pass them and needs to read like a fiend all summer. So of course he would rather be doing anything else.
Drawn to a cafe that reminds him of home, he meets a loud, abusive Tunisian Arab who commands the attention of everyone around, especially the women. Kalaj is a cabdriver, but he knows more about many things than just about everyone else. And doesn't mind telling them so.
He's also a performance artist who adores women; his every public move is calculated to draw their attention and flirt until they go off together. Kalaj is mesmerizing to our narrator.
Their acquaintance becomes a friendship of opposites, an academic and cabdriver, Jew and Arab, quiet and boisterous, wavering and steadfast, one with a green card and the other without.
The themes in Aciman's story are well-served by the story of the two young men at turning points in their lives. The academic does not turn his back on Harvard, only on people. Kalaj, after being so vigorously a critic of the ersatz United States and everything it stands for, falls whole-heartedly when he is accepted into the narrator's world.
Aciman does at least as much, if not more, tell rather than show in his story, but with a purpose. The emotions, the observations, the reflections are at the heart of what Aciman's narrator is trying to recapture in the story of that long-ago summer. It's told as a flashback, with the endpieces being the older man bringing his son to Harvard during the child's college search. The narrator is searching to feel all those feelings again as much as he is weaving a narrative.
Aciman does not name his narrator. This helps reinforce the universal human qualities of his narrator, who spends that summer both knowing how fortunate he is to be at Harvard studying what he wants, while also regretting that he can't have other kinds of lives as well. His life, even when he makes choices, is not a life like the one lived by Kalaj, who lives for the moment, who lives each moment to the fullest, who is larger than life to everyone.
Aciman does a wonderful job of capturing that feeling of being in a place where you feel you will be unmasked as a fraud, that everyone will know you don't really belong there, and how empowering it feels to get away with any slight action that makes it look like you do belong. This works as well for the Harvard academic setting as it does for an ex-pat living in a foreign country.
Another aspect of the novel that worked well was that feeling of befriending someone as magnetic as Kalaj. It may initially feel like being on top of the world that such a strong personality wants to spend time with you. But does it feel the same after you realize that friend has sucked up all the oxygen in the world? What to do if you are both proud and ashamed of knowing such a person? A book that leads to wondering about such things is one well worth spending time in.
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