Review for Teodros Kiros’ Cambridge Days

Julia Rold

Observations about Westerners’ extreme tanning habits. Mediations on beauty and the state of contemporary Africa. Theories about the moral ethical self. Thoughts about God. Racy sex scenes. These are just a few of the many diverse and wonderful surprises a reader finds upon opening Teodros Kiros’ beautifully written novel, Cambridge Days.

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and among a fascinating set of misfit intellectuals at Harvard University, each of whom is struggling to find purpose and meaning in a life lived far away from home and family, the novel offers a unique authorial perspective. The author, a philosopher and writer originally from Ethiopia, came to the United States to study as a young man, and the novel reveals again and again his fascination with and deep understanding of the idiosyncrasies and intricacies of modern American culture and the contemporary human condition.

Anchoring the book is the point of view of its thoughtful protagonist, Nyerere, who is himself from Tanzania. Nyerere’s voice starts the novel by offering his thoughts on the strange customs of his American friend, Neil, as they sit together on a beach on the Indian Ocean:

Neil has folded his body onto a towel. Despite the gathering clouds, he is ready to begin his afternoon baking ritual. He will face the sun from all directions. First, he will confront it head on, the he will turn to the left and then to the right; he will lay on his side, his back, his stomach, and then he will move back to a sitting position and face the glare without blinking his eyes. He never seems satisfied after he is cooked through.
At the beginning of the novel, Nyerere has just returned to his native Tanzania to start a progressive school for adolescents after many years in the United States. The act of returning to Tanzania and seeing how his country has changed forces Nyerere to consider how he has changed, too, since he first left home as a young man. Much like the proverbial madeleine of Proust’s The Remembrance Things Past, Neil’s tanning ritual seemingly triggers memories for Nyerere of his own past, and he begins to recall his life in Cambridge and the diverse cast of characters he knew and loved while he was working there.

We meet them all. In addition to his tanning-devotee friend Neil—a man from rural Utah in love with Africa—there is Adowa, a beautiful Ghanaian intellectual with whom Nyerere himself is deeply in love. There is the amazing, aging Rosa, the maker of the most divine limeade in the world, who has “lived through the death of two husbands, countless cats, and most recently, the brutal chopping of an ancient willow tree in her front yard.” There is Rosa’s son, Elias, Nyerere’s good friend, of mixed Jewish and West Indian heritage, whose life is the object of great speculation throughout Cambridge. There is Heidi from Barbados, in love with Neil but who feels compelled by loyalty to reject him to be with man from her own culture.

There is the painter Conrad, a man who can’t stop sleeping around and serially marrying all the women he comes across at a café, The Coffee Connection, where he spends days of feckless leisure in Harvard Square. And above all, there is Nyerere himself , a sensitive, insightful, and honest man who has struggled to come to terms with the difficulties of being black and African in the United States, but who is also fascinated by the eccentric and rarified world he encounters in modern Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The theme of being black in a very white and very elite world is central to the novel, and all the characters struggle with prejudice and bigotry in its various forms. Nyerere finds that in progressive Cambridge, which prides itself on its open-mindedness and liberality, the majority white people he encounters do not want to consider the politics of race—a subject with which they are profoundly uncomfortable since it would mean reconsidering their own privilege—preferring instead to discuss issue of ‘difference’ and ‘multiculturalism.” After questioning one of his white students about her own inherent racial biases in hopes to help her find ways to overcome them, Nyerere discovers that the university he loves is not as ‘open-minded’ as he had assumed and is told he will not be rehired for his university teaching job.

Heidi, the young woman from Barbados, is constantly aware of what she calls her own “invisibleness” as a black woman in the United States—the way her contributions go unnoticed in the law office where she works, how her boss only comes to her to tell her whatever she does wrong and ignores the many, many things she does right. To counter this bias, she ruminates on injustice by night and by day dresses only in the most brightly-colored clothes possible, seemingly to celebrate herself, though still noting sadly that of her fashion choices:

Heidi’s hobby was dressing well. Every day she went to work sporting different styles. Her spring colors consisted of black silk pants with a lilac scarf and high heels. On cold winter days she wore a blue suit with matching shoes. (…) She rarely made mistakes, but noticed on the days she did, that people actually saw her.

In spite of the many acts of aggression and micro-aggressions that Nyerere and the other characters endure in Cambridge, none of them seems to lose their fascination with the place, especially Nyerere whose regular observations and loving descriptions of Cambridge are among the great pleasures of reading the book. Although it is not conventional in its plotting or storytelling and its not a page-turner in the traditional sense, Kiros’ novel is what I like to think of as a book of non-traditional delights—something not often found in much of modern publishing, and credit must be give to Red Sea Press for believing in such a beautiful and unusual novel. At times elegiac in tone and voice, it is, above all, a love song, to a particular place and time. The novel’s lyrical prose is paired with thoughtful observed details of reality which at its finest moments have the capacity to arrest the attention much like a great line of poetry, and the author is at his absolute best when he is describing this world of Cambridge, which both he and the characters clearly know intimately:

As I walk towards Harvard Square, I pass streets I know. The small shops shine fuzzy lights onto narrow streets, past the little brick houses on Brattle Street, through the crowded sidewalks. A group of street musicians jam on the corner. Cambridge has an intoxicating beauty that can dazzle any passer-by. The breeze releases me for just a moment to enjoy the scene. It nudges me on, not too long after, and I find myself at a bus stop.

The author is equally wonderful with descriptions of his rich and diverse cast of characters. Among my favorites is this beautifully observed description of Rosa:

She stands at a cupboard wearing a red and white flowered apron. Her hair is gathered near the crown of her head. She had cocoa eyes that still glint with gold slivers. (….) Hands cross over a soft breastbone. I marvel for a moment at her honey-colored hands.

Or this one of Elias:

From the back corner of the room, he canvassed the place. With his stupefied almond eyes in a small face, ivory-biscuit skin, adorably curly brown hair with emerging shades of gray, a goatee, and receding hair line, people could not help look, especially when they saw him everywhere in the Square at any time of the day or the early evening.

All the characters have a rich and fully-fledged humanity that the author brings to life on the page, allowing us access to their inner lives and tragedies. All are struggling to some degree, perhaps no one more than the elusive Conrad, a serial lover of women who meets a sad though not probably surprising ending. The scenes with Conrad and his lovers are among the most risky and racy in the novel. However, as strong and daring as some of the sex scenes are, the novel is equally marvelous when it offers us insights into the human condition through its wonderful philosophical sections. Throughout the novel, I was impressed with the way the author, a highly regarded philosopher, imbedded commentaries on such subjects as art, love beauty, morality, educating his readers in addition to telling a compelling a story of people we learn to care about. Among the most effective was towards the end when Nyerere offered this:

The heart is the seat of thinking, particularly moral thinking. It is in the heart that great decision percolate (…) The heart is the moral educator of the self. We must therefore listen to the heart, before and after we act, before because thoughts want to originate, and after because thought has originated, and a choice has to be made.

The Egyptians, and following them the master thinker Aristotle, made the heart the center of thinking because they knew that nothing great is accomplished without the heart’s take, the task of teaching the citizen dreamer, to transform the world by engaging our moral reasoning, our duty.

The book is titled Cambridge Days, and, of course the city of Cambridge itself is one of the main protagonists of the novel. However, equally important a character is Africa, too, specifically Tanzania, which the Nyerere, has both left and returned to, and throughout the book, the author, through his characters, offers us a complex and portrait of two very different parts of the world. It is not common to get stories of immigrants who return to their home after a long time away. In this novel, though, we are given the opposite. The author seems determined to show us that while his protagonist has loved Cambridge, and by extension, his life in the United States, his story is not the typical immigrant’s narrative of struggle, reinvention, and success in a foreign land, but rather struggle and personal redemption through acceptance and a final return to Tanzania. Even as he admires Cambridge and has been altered profoundly by his “Cambridge days’ the protagonist has no wish to become American. Instead, he must make the final journey back again to this home to achieve his dreams.

Cambridge Days is a remarkable novel from a gifted and unusual writer of great insight and exceptional lyrical gifts. It tells a new story both of immigration and of Africa, showing us a world that has been loved and lost by the narrator and another one that has been gained. The protagonist is not under any illusion that this return journey will be easy, either. He has a realistic understanding about the current state of his country and the continent in general and notes sadly, But I know desire cannot save Africa. Maybe only God can.

Yet the novel remains hopeful, hinting at the promise of great success coming to Nyerere at last thought his work on the school. He might not be able to save Africa, but by end of the novel, Nyerere will also proclaim, with great and sincere feeling, that Africa has saved him.