In André Aciman’s new Harvard Square, an Egyptian-born Jew and a Tunisian Muslim meet their limits
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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