André Aciman’s collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere
(2011) considers the importance of place, memory, and identity. Aciman compiled the collection after traveling around the world. Nominated for the 2011 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, critics praise the essays for their diverse scope and how well they link together time and place. Aciman is a renowned essayist, novelist, and seventeenth-century literature scholar. He is best known for his award-winning memoir, Out of Egypt
, which chronicles the years he spent growing up Jewish in post-colonial Egypt.
Aciman notes that he spent his childhood on the move. From the age of 15, his parents moved him around the world, rarely settling in any one place for long. He found it incredibly difficult to make friends, and he never felt that he belonged anywhere. Moving around all the time adversely affected his sense of identity. Alibis
is Aciman’s attempt to connect his fragmented memories to discover who he truly is.
The first essay, “Lavender,” details one of Aciman’s earliest memories back in Egypt. He recalls that his father always wore lavender-scented aftershave. Aciman remembers that the aftershave wasn’t easy to find, but that his father wouldn’t wear anything else. The scent defined Mr. Aciman as a unique individual; the aroma always reminds Aciman of his father.
Aciman believes that scents have the power to define us. Once he saw how important lavender was to his father, he decided to find a scent of his own. He connects the quest to find aftershave with finding his inner essence. For Aciman, a distinctive scent presents an opportunity to express himself and to build something solid and permanent while the places around him change.
Aciman is preoccupied with finding somewhere to belong. He wants a place to call home. In the essay “Places de Vosges,” he admits that he never looks at any destination through the eyes of a tourist. He is preoccupied with imagining whether he might call it home. He wanders around Paris, absorbing every sight, sound, smell, and touch, debating whether the place represents who he is.
Aciman continues this idea of place mirroring identity in “The Contrafactual Traveler.” Again, he openly admits that he doesn’t know how to be a traveling tourist. He cannot help wondering if the next place he visits might be the one place he belongs to. For a long time, Aciman suspects that he will travel forever because he cannot find the perfect fit.
Eventually, Aciman settles in New York City. However, he is not convinced that New York represents the real him. He examines his feelings in “New York, Luminous” through the eyes of another. In this essay, he pretends that he is an outsider observing New York City for the first time; he wonders if it is even possible for two people to see the same place the same way.
Aciman concludes that we all have very different memories of the exact same place; one place, such as New York, symbolizes different things to each of us. Although places don’t move geographically since they’re set in stone, they’re only as certain, or as permanent, as the life we breathe into them through our memories.
Essays such as “Place des Voges,” “In Tuscany,” and “Barcelona” don’t just focus on the present. As Aciman wanders through these territories, he talks about their history. He considers the beauty of a single place holds so many memories. For example, he sees a group of boys skateboarding through town, and it reminds him of how much that single space has witnessed over the centuries, from seventeenth-century duels to twentieth-century war.
Again, Aciman highlights the idea that “place” holds many meanings, and it is impossible to understand them all without a proper political and religious context. For example, in “Barcelona,” Aciman laments the loss of Jewish heritage from Spain. He notes that, while for non-Jewish people this may not be important, for Jews like him, it is depressing.
Essentially, Aciman cannot imagine fitting into a landscape where the people so deliberately buried Jewish memories. He loves his Jewish heritage and doesn’t plan to forget it. What he sees and feels in Barcelona makes him consider how easy it is to suppress memories, and how easily we can deceive ourselves. It is very simple to erase history and start anew, which is both comforting and troubling.
In the final essay, “Afterward: Parallax,” Aciman explains how labels tell us nothing about a person. For example, he is Egyptian-born, but he is not Egyptian. He is an Italian citizen, but his first language is French. He lives in New York, but he feels European. Although place is important, it is not all that should identify us; it is how we connect with the world, and the meaning that we give those places, that counts.