by André Aciman
W. W. Norton
Dallas Morning News
4 May 2013
André Aciman’s new novel, Harvard Square, opens with a prologue in which a father recounts traveling with his son to their final stop in a series of campus tours searching for the teenager’s potential undergraduate university.
Leading his son around his alma mater, Harvard, the father points out old haunts and various former addresses attempting to inculcate in the son a love for Cambridge, MA. The father’s touring becomes a trek through his memories of graduate school in the late 1970s.
The unnamed narrator’s nostalgic storytelling brings to life the friendship he developed with a rapid-fire café raconteur and dragueur (a man continually on the make for new women) named Kalaj, a shortened version of his nickname, Kalashnikov. Making his living as a cab driver, Kalaj keeps his banter tuned to “revolutionary” and opposes the American style, anything “jumbo-ersatz.”
Harvard Square, like Aciman’s other novels, Call Me By Your Name (2007) and Eight White Nights (2010), is an exploration of how our intimacies with others develop from nostalgic or sentimental memories of relationships with other people and places. The narrator’s memoir is filled with documenting and describing how he, an Egyptian Jew, and Kalaj, a Tunisian Muslim, build their tenuous connection.
Though they’re opposites in many ways, Aciman’s main characters build friendship by constructing together an imaginary, immigrant-filled, postcolonial Paris from the various bars and restaurants they frequent around Cambridge. Using the Middle Eastern-styled Café Algiers (an actual Cambridge coffee house) as their general meeting spot, Kalaj schools all comers about the vagaries the “ersatz-American” experience, on creating a liberated life, and how to pick up women.
Ground down by his graduate studies, the narrator attempts to balance his solitary scholarly study of 18th-century European literature and his desires for a liberated, diverse sex life. This balancing is also a demonstration of his ambivalence toward both his Harvard life and his friendship with Kalaj: The narrator can’t choose between the upward mobility Harvard affords him and the scruffy pleasures of faux-Paris.
Aciman’s prose is witty and smooth; his American English is spiced nicely with Franco-Arabic intonations. But the writing seems rushed in many places, and his set-up, which is appealing early on, becomes pocked with problems as the novel proceeds. Where their interactions ought to detail how he and Kalaj forge intimate friendship, the narrator, instead, cites their connections — listing or telling them, as it were, rather than showing them. More worrisome is how the story descends into a hetero-masculine mythology about easily conquerable, sexually available international women in and around Cambridge.
It’s possible that Aciman means for his narrator’s storytelling be read as ironic misremembering given that several scenes with these thinly characterized women are hollow and false.
At its best, when focused on the narrator and Kalaj, the novel can be moving and funny. But Aciman lets the story wander from its strengths too often, and readers will find it hard to develop their own intimacy with the work.