Head Explodes: Mahler, Kiran Ahluwalia and Tinariwen

By Rob Packer

The true sign of a great book, whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction, is that it changes your perspective, that it influences you for weeks after you put it down, that it opens your eyes to the new, or makes you remember what you didn’t realize you’d forgotten. Open City by Teju Cole (my thoughts on it here) is turning into one of those books and it’s not giving too much away to say that a Mahler symphony appears at a key moment towards the end of the book (beautifully described, by the way). I didn’t realize, though, that Open City had left a subtle itch on the Mahler part of my brain. Last Sunday, I had to scratch it and decided to listen to Mahler’s symphonies one by one.

I queued all ten of them up on Spotify and when I do this a “listening project” like this, I usually put another track between the albums or symphonies like the lemon sorbet you sometimes find between your starter and main course at posh dinners. And with something like Mahler’s symphonies with their different emotional calibrations, a track by TV on the Radio, Hot Chip or Rihanna works perfectly to know it’s time to move onto the next symphony or to turn it off and go to bed. It doesn’t always.

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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. Read more of this post

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