cover image Harvard Square

Harvard Square

André Aciman. Norton, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-08860-1

Aciman’s stock in trade is nostalgia. In his latest novel (after Eight White Nights), another autobiographical hero, this one unnamed, dreams of the past but desires it only as it is conjured in his memory. He looks back at himself as a navel-gazing Egyptian-Jewish Harvard grad student stuck in Cambridge during the lonely and hot, but game-changing, summer of 1977. To avoid studying, he remembers trawling the empty town, running into a Tunisian cab driver named Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov, at a place called Café Algiers. Kalaj is everything Aciman’s narrator is not: loud, reckless, and brutal, his opinions fired rat-tat-tat at anyone and everyone. But he is also a doppelganger. Muslim and Jew are both outsiders in a borrowed America, exiles with nowhere to which they might return. They become good friends, sharing the little money they earn, chasing women. One afternoon they picnic at Waldon Pond, into which Kalaj urinates, a hilariously bald metaphor. Fearing he will be deported, Kalaj struggles to resist the “ersatz” allure of an America that might reject him. Our hero is torn between the camaraderie he feels for Kalaj and his desire to assimilate. Succumbing to Kalaj’s uncompromising truths would mean rejecting the more nuanced hope that he might make a home in America without entirely belonging to it. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (Apr.)