Teju Cole’s “Open City”

By Rob Packer

Open City by Teju Cole

Last month, I attended a joint reading by Jeet Thayil and Teju Cole at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was a stellar pairing between two debut novels and the two cities depicted in them: Mumbai in Thayil’s Narcopolis (2012) and New York in Cole’s Open City (2011). Over the following day and a half I was in Edinburgh, my friend, her sister and I kept coming back t othe reading as we evaluated and re-evaluated our festival highlights. We all had lots, but we were all agreed that Cole and Thayil came high in any list of favourites.

Open City is the monologue of Julius, as he goes on walks through the streets of New York, cataloguing meticulously what he sees and thinks and interleaving it with memories of his childhood in Nigeria. These walks are not just the narrative: Cole captures it in the flow of narrative form as well. The stream-of-consciousness prose reflects the contingent fluidity that an aimless walk around Manhattan actually produces. On a good day (like last weekend) it’s a sublime experience, where thesis, antithesis and synthesis pile up unexpectedly one on top of another in the world’s most impression-dense city. In an article for the FT, Cole described composing an article as “writing as diving”: Open City works as “reading as diving”—so much so, that I read most of the book on one transatlantic flight.

Not long before this aimless wandering began, I had fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment, and I wonder now if the two are connected. On the days when I was home early enough from the hospital, I used to look out the window like someone taking auspices, hoping to see the miracle of natural immigration. Each time I caught sight of geese swooping in formations across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high-rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove. Often, as I searched the sky, all I saw was rain, or the faint contrail of an airplane bisecting the window, and I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.

As well as a writer, Cole is a photographer and it’s not hard to detect photographic or cinematic influences in the observant prose. In this paragraph (the book’s second, although almost any other paragraph would do), the penultimate sentence shows this to full effect, moving from the macro—the sky—to the (relatively) micro—the geese’s “dark throats” or “tireless hearts”. This was emphasized even more for me in the FT article, where he comments on a passenger on the train from London to Edinburgh: by chance, I was actually sat a row away and such observations were lost on me.

The novel is full of diverse influences and references that range between Mahler, Yoruba religion, Coetzee, immigrants’ stories, the history of New York and Africa. And in a section in Brussels (it seems no coincidence that this is Conrad’s “sepulchral city”), the narrator touches on Auden, Moroccan literature, Belgian politics and prejudice against Muslims, its history in the Congo and as one of principal theatres of war in European history. Brussels stands as a counterpoint to New York and the section feels more overtly political, especially where Julius meets two frustrated and disgruntled Moroccans living in Belgium:

He, too, was in the grip of rage and rhetoric. I saw that, attractive though his side of the political spectrum was. A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves and for so many, all that mattered was the willingness to do something. Action led to action, free of any moorings, and the way to be someone, the way to catch the attention of the young and recruit them to one’s cause, was to be enraged. It seemed as if the only way this lure of violence could be avoided was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties. But was that not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?

Questions of ethics, race, identity, belonging and violence are ever-present in Open City: in the Second World War internment of Japanese Americans, colonial history in Africa, New York’s involvement in the slave trade, lynchings of African-Americans, the consequences of 9/11. But they build up as background, forming an oblique and ambiguous palimpsest, which puts the reader at the centre and foregrounds his or her own moral choices in reaction to the book. In this, it is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, with whom both writers were compared in the reading in Edinburgh. I generally think of this kind of comparison between authors as a bit forced (more a way to use unexpected juxtapositions to sell books, rather than useful comparisons); however, in his narrative, Cole does manage to keep the prose as learned and as engaging as Sebald’s.

Teju Cole, Open City, Faber & Faber (UK) / Random House (US), 2011

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4 Responses to Teju Cole’s “Open City”

  1. Adding Cole’s Open City to my list. Rob, thanks for the lead. Gosh. What a gorgeous paragraph. I especially love the line: “Often, as I searched the sky, all I saw was rain, or the faint contrail of an airplane bisecting the window, and I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist.” What pacing. Sigh. T. (Another great review!)

    • Rob Packer says:

      You really must. It’s completely unputdownable and as I was re-reading sections to write this blog, I kept noticing more and more things layered down in the book’s substrata. It really is very intelligently written.
      On a literary groupie side note, I spoke to the author while getting off the train in London. Seemed like a nice guy—I just hope that didn’t influence my opinion on the book (I don’t think it did)

  2. A fine review, Bob. I may add it to my already piling TBR. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Pingback: Head Explodes: Mahler, Kiran Ahluwalia and Tinariwen « Nomadic Permanence: Rob Packer's Blog

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