I was 17 years old when I met André Aciman. It was the year I had exhausted all the available titles in the Young Adult section of my tiny local library, which honestly isn't that hard when you're 'homeschooled' and your library's YA section contains only 104 books. Faced with a conundrum, I flipped a quarter and turn down the magazine isle instead of the adult fiction isle. There I found a single Paris Review magazine from 2007, four years out of date and the only one of its kind. Inside it rested Monsieur Kalashnikov by André Aciman an Egyptian-American writer. It was the first piece of work I remember reading that insulted me deeply. I found myself incredibly angry with and jealous of Mr. Aciman and from that moment on vowed to never read another word of him. I'd forgotten all about him too, until my email notified me that a blog I follow Literary Birthdays did a post on him for his birthday. The blog post even listed a link to the very same short fiction I'd read in high school.
Rereading Monsieur Kalashnikov now, as a 23 year-old with a degree in Literature, I find myself more curious than angry, and him, more problematic than an a source of envy.
The same words that had triggered the angsty teenager still today triggers the budding historian who flinches at absolutist statements. What makes American women different from all the other nationalities of women? Can we not, by this logic, extrapolate the even more general: all women, like houses, are constructed by external forces? Yet, Aciman's character, this Monsieur Kalashnikov is suggesting something else entirely, he is suggesting that American women are particularly vacant. Why? Aciman doesn't make Kalashnikov expound. Instead, we are thrust into a world of opposites where Kalashnikov, the cabbie, is contrasted against the Harvard PhD candidate whom, the reader finds out is the main protagonist.
The reminder of the short fiction is about the two man becoming unlikely friends based on their shared knowledge of French and their love of speaking the language. They both meet very different woman and fall in some sort of love that resembles self-destructive infatuation. It is deeper than engaging in destruction to stave off loneliness. The story was always about the imposter syndrome academics feel. My anger as a teenager was larger than the dismissal of women. I was angry that Kalashnikov could be eradicated from the educational system so simply as with a letter. I was angry that he had believed, against his better judgement, in the system and been let down.
Now, as a 23 year-old graduate from an Ivy League, I resonate more Aciman's two characters. Coming from a small city in the middle of the desert, during a time when federal grants and funding for college was obscure information; I never expected to be anything really. Until I found myself in community college, studying history. I don't think the worse of the imposter syndrome hit me until I received my the first critique on my first graduate level essay. I'm not sure what makes some people feel as if they have pulled a great swindle on the institution of academia in order to get them into those pearly Ivy league gates, and other people feel as if they belong. And I think this is precisely what Aciman's short fiction is trying to discern as well. What made Kalashnikov different from the nameless PhD candidate in the end? When levels of fabricated prestige dissolve, in the end both men are equally hoping for unconditional acceptance.
I'm not sure if I'll ever read more of Aciman's work, though I think his style to parse the boundary between memory, fiction, and autobiography appeals to me. I think I like the idea of these characters being isolated over-exposed thought experiments. Should I continue, I suppose I'd continue with these characters in his novel Harvard Square.