In keeping with my recent theme of book pairings, here’s another novel that pairs nicely with a piece of nonfiction that I featured a number of years ago on this blog. Published in 2013, André Aciman’s semi-autobiographical Harvard Square: A Novel is the story of a young Harvard grad student and his turbulent friendship with Kalaj, an impulsive, outspoken and frequently combative Tunisian cab driver with an unbridled lust for life. Even though the novel has a timeless feel, it’s set in the late 70s amidst the coffee shops, restaurants and student watering holes of Harvard Square. It’s in one of these student hang-outs that Aciman’s protagonist first meets Kalaj, and despite the cabbie’s rough edges is drawn towards him. With both men immigrants from North Africa (while Kalaj is a Muslim from Tunisia, our grad student is an Egyptian Jew who, along with his family was forced out of Egypt thanks to Nasser’s anti-Israeli policies), fluent in French and culturally outsiders, the two men form an unlikely but vibrant friendship.
Even though the two characters come from a similar part of the world they’re polar opposites. But because they’re so different their friendship has an incredible yin-yang quality. Kalaj’s libertine ways and impulsiveness wears off on the shy, insecure and reticent narrator. Before long he too is enjoying romantic adventures right and left. Soon the proletariat Kalaj finds himself teaching a basic French class at Harvard. But even as the two friends slowly begin to take on some of the attributes of the other, tensions manifest themselves once again, straining their friendship. Compounding all of this, the two men come from different worlds. Eventually, they will have to go their separate ways. And deep down, they know their friendship has a relatively short shelf life.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I loved how Kalaj’s earthy ways and passionate outlook on life invigorated Aciman’s protagonist by boosting his confidence and widening his horizons. This is one of the best novel’s I’ve read this year and highly recommend it.