Alibis By André Aciman

April 14th, 2012  |  Published in April 2012, Features

André Aciman was born into an upper middle class-to-rich Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt.  He has described the nearly Chekovian life that his extended family lived in the waning days of a tolerant and multicultural Egypt.  As anti-Semitism rose in Egypt, a manipulative political movement meant to target “outsiders” and “foreigners”, various members of the extended Aciman family departed Alexandria with little but the clothes on their backs.  Aciman reminds us by the circumstances of their departure of the relative arbitrariness of the Jews who stayed and the Jews who left Alexandria, reminding us of what was to come in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.  The family ends up in Rome for a number of years, impoverished materially, but not emotionally.

Alibis is a series of essays in which Aciman reflects upon his statelessness.  Although now an American citizen, he is unable to actually live in America, as his longing for Alexandria is so great; when, however he returns to Rome with his new family, and looks for anything in his old neighborhood that might serve as the Proustian madeleine, he finds himself intellectually and visually frozen, and feels as if he never lived there at all.  The same phenomena happened to him in another book of essays when he finally returns to Alexandria.  Although we might cheapen these experiences and lack of affects into a kind of emotional dissociation, the human mind is far cleverer than that, and Aciman presents himself in Alibis as a latter day Marcel Proust.  Proust’s masterpiece, usually translated as Remembrance of Things Past, is much more accurately as In Search of Lost Time (A Le Rechechere de Tempes Perdu).

The sense of living in permanent exile regardless of actual home address and passport, is a new type of literature, which we might call exile literature; one of its most famous practitioners is Salmon Rushdie; others include Karen Disai, Monica Ali, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  But the author who may be said to have invented the genre is Marcel Proust.  Alibis, which shows us how complexly Aciman may invent narratives of his past where none existed, begins to penetrate Proust’s ideas of time and of one’s self in time and space.  Those are the Alibis of the title.  Neither Proust nor Aciman is able to live in the present, nor does either wish to; they both live in the past somewhat of their own invention, and their ability to sift beauty and experience from the past is to make the present and the future all of the same tense as the past.  This immensely complex system could be called neurotic, or it could be called genius.  Aciman explains that the reason for the extraordinary lengths of Proust’s sentences is his way of integrating past, present, and future all at once, and next time you may be in the mood to pick up Proust, you will find that, indeed, Aciman has stumbled on to Proust’s primary troupe about time.

Eventually, Aciman adjusts to his internal need to loop through and around time in the Proustian manner for him to enjoy any current experience, particularly when he travels.  In other words he can only enjoy New York while thinking about Alexandria, and can only enjoy Alexandria by remembering his longing for it in Rome and New York.  It makes for fascinating literature and a total change of the very point and essence of time, indicating ways of redefining it to suit multiple, complex and deeply felt hurts, and to abreact them through the redemptive act of writing.

–Daniel Brown

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