In “Out of Egypt,” André Aciman wrote a rich and beautifully evoked memoir of the Alexandria from which he and his Jewish relatives were exiled after Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in the 1950s. His new novel, “Harvard Square,” is a darker account of exile itself and the uncertainties of accommodation to a new world while memories of the old tug painfully.
The divide is inhabited by two figures who strike up a stormy friendship at the Café Algiers, a Harvard Square hangout. One is the narrator, a Harvard graduate student from Egypt who, in this as in much else, seems to reflect Aciman himself; and Kalaj, a stormy Tunisian who works, with precarious papers, as a Cambridge cab driver.
The narrator encounters Kalaj in full pontificating stride, haranguing another graduate student about the evils of the United States. From his habitual seat at the café, where the staff treats him like a kind of pet monster, Kalaj denounces everything about America — food, culture, money-making, women — as “all things jumbo and ersatz.” His screed, which Aciman orchestrates at biting length, is as much a vehicle of virile seduction as denunciation. Women at the café wobble toward him (a touch of Cambridge-style self-hatred?), and Kalaj’s affairs run two or three at a time.
The narrator, homesick himself and struggling to keep his graduate fellowship after failing in his first try at the required comprehensive exams, is drawn to this fellow Middle Easterner. He addresses him in French; Kalaj lights up; and from then on the two of them meet daily, go on expeditions, confide, advise each other, and pal up along with their (serial) girlfriends.
In this first part, Aciman’s story telling, though competent, lacks much flavor; the pair’s assorted women, other than one of the narrator’s girlfriends — passionate and wonderfully clear-minded — are barely sketched. Bit by bit, though, his theme takes hold. There is a picnic at Walden Pond; its rooted American associations are only grafts on these immigrants. “The pond wasn’t exactly ours to claim, but it let us play there, the way an empty tennis court can be yours for a day when the owners are out of town.”
Kalaj denounces everything about America — food, culture, money-making, women — as ‘all things jumbo and ersatz.’
United for a while by their longing for the Mediterranean past, the narrator and Kalaj stand for two very different ways of dealing with their uprooting. Kalaj, warm, impetuous, and whole-hearted (Aciman succeeds in making him unforgettable, though at times the reader could do with a little forgetting; so, increasingly, could the narrator) utterly rejects adapting. Colder, fuzzier, and less likable, the narrator quietly strives to fit in and to succeed. He cultivates his Harvard professors, succeeds in a second shot at passing his exams, secures his place; even as part of him shares Kalaj’s Kalaj’s regret for the old world and estrangement from the new.
The estrangement between the two men is gradual; Aciman wisely gives the narrator intervals of cherishing his bond with Kalaj, even as he shakes it off. And there is the book’s strongest and most affecting passage. Kalaj gives a boisterous party for his friends, girlfriends, the narrator’s Harvard people. He works endlessly to prepare and bring in all manner of food and drink. It is a huge success; all in this disparate crowd is having a wonderful time. Except for Kalaj, who suddenly vanishes into the bedroom, where the narrator finds him weeping.
“[W]hat about me?” Kalaj demands over and over. Everyone is having a good time — but “what about me?” For all his formidably noisy buoyancy and elan, he has nothing; no real future except the prospect of deportation. “In exactly a year’s time I will not be here. Each and every one of you will be here but I won’t be among you.”
The narrator realizes that he himself is not far from such precariousness; a realization that will get him to work harder, to struggle — and that will widen the rift with Kalaj. And he realizes that Kalaj’s bravura anti-American rant comes precisely from the prospect that the United States will reject him; and so he will reject the United States.
Later, after the deportation takes place, the narrator feels lightness, freedom; no longer is there a Kalaj to weigh on him. No longer does he feel divided; or rather no longer will he be forced to acknowledge the division. He recalls the good times, the warmth, the adventurousness, but he has made a choice. It is a cold conclusion, a punitive one even; and for the reader as well. The narrator is a cold figure. Life is a cold place.