André Aciman’s False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory

“To those who asked, I said I went back to touch and create the past again, to walk in shoes ı hadn’t worn in years.” says Aciman (2000, p. 1).

When you have lived in many places, as André Aciman (the author of Call Me By Your Name and Out of Egypt) has, each of them enters into your soul and sensibilities, and your heart forms a crazy quilt of attitudes and accents ill-tuned to make a clean symphony. You hear the sounds and smell the scents of those places, and you feel the breeze that blew over each of them. The winds of memory carry you across the seascape of your life, now softy, now roughly, as you retrace the curious route you have sailed. No man is all of a piece, either, but a puzzle put together one piece at a time by a voyager who had no idea where he would finally end up, only that a fair wind could not be resisted. In False Papers, André Aciman opens his heart and tell the stories of those places with a brutal honesty and kind soul.

People do not forget great disasters or traumatic experiences that have left their marks on their personal memory, maybe suppress them, or prefer them to be buried in silence, but they do not forget. Nonetheless, another question to ask should be the following: how can one remember his childhood? The question turns out to be significant as the book derives its value of being a testimony from Aciman’s own experiences. When it comes to literature, because of its ever-increasing convergence to the social sciences, which is becoming more and more evident today, it is not possible to do a reading by ignoring the author’s identity as well as the temporal context, when he writes his memories. For this reason, Aciman’s text pushed me to question my childhood and how I build my childhood memories today. I noticed that the way I remember my childhood accidents was different from the hospital documents. Over time, my memories did not remain the same but changed. Because it is a fact that everyone, even those, who have the bitter privilege of experiencing the terrible tension of the course of history, knead, reconstruct, and narrate some of the events that they experienced or supposed to be experienced. As Dipesh Chakrabarty (2007, p.78) puts forward, “Historical wounds, however, are not permanent formations.” It is this tension that gives autobiography its own character and absorbing nature. The experience is always filtered and mediated by time, or by an audience beyond the self. It is not a diary, then it does not imply brining someone together with something directly and instantly-that is to say, insinuating the matter of urgency. The diary is a shift with regard to personal narrative as a literary form. This shift manifests itself in the emancipation of personal narrative form, in its world, and, most significantly, in a marked departure from the ideologised discourse. There is another thing that overshadows memories, and makes them problematic. Dominick LaCapra, one of the participants in these debates, draws attention to the issue of false memory syndrome. People may remember their experiences after some traumas differently than they actually were: “In this sense, what is denied or repressed in a lapse of memory does not disappear; it returns in a transformed, at times disfigured and disguised manner” (1998, p.10). This provides a more plausible framework when considered simultaneously with the subjectivity of ‘experience’, since “[m]emories are records of how we have experienced events, not replicas of the events themselves”. LaCapra also touches upon another critical point by asserting that “[t]estimonial witnessing typically takes place in a belated manner. . . .” (p. 11). Yet, one may admit that memories are fascinating as literary works. Everyone should try to write down some memories before they become blurred or entirely erased as Aciman does.

In the narrative that revolves around revisited traumas and joyful moments, Aciman presents the life and ideas of the society in which he is present and sets forth a representation of the forces that make up this society. From time to time, he tries to approach the incident objectively and to understand the mentalities of different sides of the society (most importantly the conflict between Jews and Muslims). Perhaps he desired to be as convincing as possible in explaining his experience to American readers he chose as his audience. For this reason, it is even possible to define the narrative as the Bildungsroman—“. . . a form calls its narrative subject to an individualist accumulative engagement with past experience framed through the modernist notion of progress” (2008, p. 363). Perhaps as Smith and Watson (2008, p. 368) put it, “. . . the autobiographical as a practice and act, rather than one genre, undermines the notion that there is a polarizing boundary between fiction and nonfiction.”

“There are no Europeans left, and the jews are all gone. Alexandria is Egyptian now” says Aciman (2000, p.1). The voice of the author is a little bit heartbroken, and his narrative is full of longing for the beautiful days of his childhood. The city where he once lived is shaped according to his mood and the intensity of emotions of the events he tells. Alexandria, the capital of memory, becomes a fascinating place by the help of Aciman’s ability to portray his emotions. André Aciman’s sensibility dominates our experience of reading in every page. Basically, his awareness of, or even preoccupation with, the ways in which his experience of begin exiled as a teenager from Alexandria in the 1960s for being Jewish influenced how he process the world is acute, and he consistently suffuses his observations of events, places, people, relationships and his reaction to different situations with a sense of the fluidity. This situation also gives him the opportunity to present a relatively more accurate picture of the 1960’s Egypt. For instance, “[s]ome, like us simply waited, the way Jews did elsewhere when it was already too late to hope for miracles. We saw the city change and each year watched European shop names come down and be replaced by Egyptian ones, and heard of streets being renamed, until-as is the case now-I didn’t know a single one” (2000, p.4) says Aciman for telling the change of Egypt after 1956. One may also feel anger in his tone because what the thought was different than what he saw. But most importantly, he does not develop a hatred against other groups. According to him, everyone must learn to live together since everyone is destined to live together (2000, s.86). But how? Aciman also does not know the answer but encourage us to ask.

I call his narrative “naked” because he is utterly honest with his story. In furtherance with this assumption, “An entire childhood revisited in a flash. I am a terrible nostographer. Instead of experiencing returns, I rush through them like a tourist on a one-day bus tour” says Aciman (2000, p. 13).

In sum, Aciman writes about Alexandria, Egypt. He revisits Alexandria and goes to old apartment buildings, the Graeco-Roman Museum, and the Jewish cemetery. He goes back to Paris and remembers a few winter weeks he experienced there when he was fourteen years old. He visits Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the home of novelist Marcel Proust, Illiers. Home was wherever his family happened to live. Being an alien was nothing new to Aciman. However friendly the people happened to be, he knew full well that he was not and never could be “one of them”. In trying to explain his feelings for the place, he might well lapse into mysticism sometimes, yet he was good at storytelling. He simply succeeds in giving his message to his readers. There are just some places where one’s soul is, at least so far as latitude and longitude are concerned, at rest: “This, I realize, is what happens when one finally comes home: one hardly notices, and it doesn’t feel odd at all” (2000, p.20). I really understand and respect him. Life is hard. Many of us do not cope well with its difficulties. Our attempts to cope take all sorts of forms, from workaday self-dececeptions and odd behaviors to excessive and ill-advised use of alcohol and drugs to neuroses of various sorts. In this context, his attempt to cope with the life is marvelous. I would highly recommend this book for those who like to pace in someone else’s memories.

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