APRIL 10, 2013
NOSTALGIA IS A POWERFUL DRUG, and author André Aciman is a persuasive dealer. In his alluring new book, Harvard Square, Aciman nestles layers of nostalgia and longing inside each other like a series of Russian dolls. For some people, no place induces a deeper ache for an imagined past than a college campus, and that is precisely where the book begins. Our narrator, who remains meaningfully unnamed throughout, has brought his high-school-age son to his illustrious alma mater for a campus visit. The father’s wistful nostalgia clashes with his son’s matter-of-fact disinterest. “I’m so not into this,” the son declares. His father finally concedes that his own love for Harvard only developed in retrospect. “I learned to love Harvard after, not during,” he admits. When they visit the campus store, the father (to his son’s mortification) gives the clerk his decades-old student ID number when he goes to buy two T-shirts. The clerk informs him that his number is “in the system, but inactive.” That’s a good way to put it. Our narrator has been in the system, but inactive, all along.
That opening scene underlines the fact that the rest of Harvard Square takes place entirely in hindsight. When his son’s lack of enthusiasm prevents the narrator from vicariously reliving his college experience, he retreats into his own mind to recall a significant friendship from his Harvard years. The bulk of Harvard Square is a memory, and probably an unreliable one at that. Can we trust our narrator? Is his voice empowered by the distance and detachment of years, or does every moment look a bit better through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia?
One afternoon in 1977, the narrator, an Egyptian-Jewish graduate student, meets a Tunisian-Muslim taxi driver at the Café Algiers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unlike our narrator, this taxi driver has a name — almost. “You can call me Kalaj,” he says, a nickname that is short for Monsieur Kalashnikov. Our narrator is reserved, even shy, but Kalaj speaks in the same aggressive, rapid-fire style as the rifle he was named for, spitting words in a relentless rat-tat-tat. Despite their differences, the two men immediately recognize one another as complementary sides of the same coin. “I envied him,” the narrator says of Kalaj. “I wanted to learn from him. He was a man. I wasn’t sure what I was. He was the voice, the missing link to my past, the person I might have grown up to be had life taken a different turn.” But our narrator’s admiration for Kalaj quickly gives way to moments of deep disdain and contempt — after all, is there anyone we can hate more acutely than ourselves?
Kalaj is relentless in his indictment of America and everything in it as ersatz, mere artificial (and inferior) imitations of an idealized “elsewhere” that he can never quite define. Sometimes that perfect place is his Tunisian hometown of Sidi Bou Saïd, “the most beautiful whitewashed town on the Mediterranean,” and sometimes it is Sicily. But, more often than not, it is Paris. Kalaj and the narrator near-mythologize the city, desperate to experience it even as they miss experiencing the Cambridge they will someday similarly idealize. “We blamed Cambridge for not being Paris, the way over the years I’ve blamed many places for not being Cambridge,” the narrator observes. Café Algiers becomes their Jerusalem, the place into which they pour all of their longing for community, history, and home:
We had a little world all our own here, a house-of-cards world with its house-of-cards cafés and house-of-cards rituals held together by our house-of-cards France. We called Café Algiers Chez Nous, because it was so obviously made for the likes of us — part North African, part faux-French, part dreamplace for the displaced, and always part-something-from-somewhere-else for those who were neither quite here nor altogether elsewhere.
But this shared Francophilia is an ineffective bandage for the deep desire both men have to fit in as Americans. Despite his frequent tirades against the United States, Kalaj fears and fights deportation from its “jumbo-ersatz” borders. Terrified of uncertain reality, Kalaj focuses on an impossible ideal instead:
[B]y degrading America and nicknaming amerloque everything that was wrong with the world, he was forging for himself an imaginary Mediterranean identity, a Mediterranean paradise lost, something that may never have existed but that he needed to believe was out there in some imaginary other shore because otherwise he’d have nothing and nowhere to turn to in case America turned its back on him.
The narrator doesn’t mention that his observation could just as easily be turned onto himself; he desperately wants to crack into the elite social sphere of Harvard academes even as he pretends to reject them in favor of Kalaj’s unpretentious joie de vivre.
If it sounds like Harvard Square favors detailed character development over plot, that’s because it does. Kalaj drinks, seduces women, and rails against the ersatz nature of everything from people to fruit; the narrator, meanwhile, studies for a critical exam. Girlfriends and other minor characters contribute little to the plot and usually stick around only long enough to provoke striking observations about the two central characters: “‘Cher ami, I live in the hic et nunc, the here and now,’ she said. I wanted to tell her that I, on the other hand, inhabited the iam non and the nondum, the no more and the not yet, but then I thought it better to leave this for some other time.”
There are moments when this close character examination feels repetitive, but that repetitiveness is an honest (if unflattering) reflection of reality. How many of us drift towards the same café or bar night after night? It’s hard to fault Aciman for acknowledging the banality of life. It’s also hard to criticize him for his occasionally too perfect symbolism, simply because it is so beautifully done. The moments when Kalaj unceremoniously takes a piss in Walden Pond or fights deportation by charming his way into a local chapter of Freemasons might be obvious, but they’re also deeply satisfying. At times, Aciman even infuses his work with a kind of intriguing self-awareness. “The woman is a metaphor for home,” Kalaj repeats twice in one critical moment, and (in this book at least) he’s right. At another point, Aciman, an acclaimed memoirist who flirts with autobiography even in his fiction, uses his narrator to remark: “Because I didn’t want to forget was the heart and soul of poetry. Had any poet been more candid about his craft?”
Do these men know on some level that they are characters in a book? Or is this literary, self-referential vocabulary just a product of our narrator’s own academic background? (It’s hard not to read the narrator as a proxy for Aciman himself; both were born into Jewish families in Alexandria, Egypt, before arriving at Harvard by way of Europe, and doubtless there are other parallels as well.) At several moments, I felt that Aciman was aware of my presence in his story and acknowledged that interference through his characters.
But certainly the strongest part of the book is the friendship between the two male leads. They attract and reject each other in an energetic pas de deux, alternating between fierce intimacy and deliberate alienation. (It’s refreshing to see male characters engage with the same loquaciousness often reserved for female characters.) Kalaj and the narrator share moments of high drama, but the smaller details are far more compelling, building a deceptively simple and surprisingly touching story that sidesteps clichés about the unshakeable bonds of friendship and masterfully walks the line between perception and reality. Does the Kalaj of our narrator’s memory bear any resemblance to truth? Does it even matter?
If “[b]ecause I didn’t want to forget” is the heart and soul of poetry, then perhaps it’s the core of nostalgia as well. Like the characters in Harvard Square, we all try to go backwards sometimes. But maybe we indulge in nostalgia not because the past was better, but because we simply don’t want to forget it. Shared recollection is the only evidence of our existence, so we try to save our memories — and then ache because we can’t.