Sunday, November 06, 2011

Chronicle of a solitary man: Teju Cole's Open City

[Did a version of this review for The Sunday Guardian]

At one point in Teju Cole’s novel Open City, the narrator Julius – a Nigerian psychiatrist in his early 30s, living in New York – visits the American Folk Art Museum and contemplates the work of the deaf painter John Brewster. Some portraits are of children who were hearing-impaired themselves, and the effect is that of artist and subject each wrapped in a cocoon of silence, regarding one another. “I was the only person there,” Julius tells us:
This heightened the feeling of quietness I got from almost all the portraits. The stillness of the people depicted was certainly part of it, as was the sober colour palette of each panel, but there was something more, something harder to define: an air of hermeticism. Each of the portraits was a sealed-away world, visible from without but impossible to enter.
“Quietness”, “stillness”, “hermeticism”, “sealed away”... these are words that might just as easily describe Julius’s own narrative, which is so full of careful introspection that at times it threatens to weigh down this powerful novel. He is one of the most solitary narrator-protagonists I’ve encountered in fiction. This book contains a reference to Robert de Niro playing the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, but Julius’s isolation reminded me a little of another key De Niro role, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver – a lonesome man of the streets who looks straight into the camera and says “I’m the only one here.”

Open City is fueled not by a conventional plot but by the ruminations of this intelligent, cultured, possibly depressive man. Walking the streets of NYC, Julius thinks about the history of his family (his mother – from whom he is estranged – was born in Germany just as WWII ended, his father was African) and his dim childhood memories of Nigeria; about the city he now lives in, its past and present, and the waves of immigrations that shaped it; and about his patients, including a member of a Delaware tribe who wrote a book about colonial atrocities but remained tormented by her personal connection with what she was writing about. (“I can’t pretend it isn’t about my life, she said to me once, it is my life. It’s a difficult thing to live in a country that has erased your past.”) He spends time with a former professor, an octogenarian Japanese man who had himself faced questions of identity six decades earlier. Later, during a visit to Brussels, he finds himself in an unexpected conversation about “victimized Others” – as well as the Palestinian question, the war against Al-Qaeda and the history of suffering – with the Muslim owner of an Internet shop.

Thus the book’s themes slowly emerge and flow into one another, and we also become aware of Julius’s internal conflicts: he is indignant about the Hollywood movie convention of “the good white man in Africa” ready to bring about the salvation of a continent, but he is also disquieted by encounters with other Africans who try to “lay claims” on him. He is melancholy and ill at ease – and there are subtle indicators that he might be an unreliable narrator too.

In one vivid passage, watching a scuffle from a distance, he is frightened by a vision of “a lynched man dangling from a tree”, only to realise that it was a canvas sheet twirling in the wind. Of course, an optical illusion of this sort can hit anyone (not just a dark-complexioned man conscious of a history steeped in violent racism), but other things in Julius’s narration seem a little off too. When someone who has lived in New York for years is spellbound by the sight of people hurrying into “underground chambers” at subway stations (“I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counter-instinctive death drive, into movable catacombs”), it suggests a dissociation from even the most quotidian aspects of the world around him.

Then there are his encounters – such as the one with a Haitian shoeshiner – which often take the form of long monologues spoken by the other person; here, one gets the impression that our narrator is a passive receptacle for (or even a fabricator of) other people’s stories. (Cole’s refusal to use quote-marks heightens this impression – there is no visual separation between Julius’s thoughts and the conversations he participates in.) This comes into clearer relief towards the end of the novel, with a revelation that reminds us to be wary of the tales we make up about ourselves and others, and to not take everything about Julius’s story at face value.

The first sentence of Open City (“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall...”) suggested a continuation rather than a commencement, as if we had been deposited right in the middle of one of Julius’s private musings. At the end, as he returns to the subject with which he began – migratory birds – and the narrative comes to an equally abrupt close, there is a sense of a life moving perpetually in a loop. This book's sombre subject matter and tone, along with its many references to high culture (Dutch paintings, the music of Mahler, the poem “Piers Plowman”, even the slow-moving Victor Erice film The Spirit of the Beehive), make it an occasionally dense read. (Even when Julius describes being beaten up by muggers, it takes the shape of introspection: “We find it convenient to describe time as a material, we ‘waste’ time, we ‘take’ our time. As I lay there, time became material in a strange new way: fragmented, torn into incoherent tufts, and at the same time spreading, like something spilled, like a stain.”) As such, I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is just starting a relationship with literary fiction. But if you do manage to sink into its narrative, this is a layered, deeply rewarding story about a man trying to make sense of an alienating world.


  1. Very well written. It was one such review of yours about Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled that had made me take it up. The experience was amazing. Will get this one too. :-)

  2. Dear Jabberwock - when are you going to read A Game of Thrones?


  4. teju's favorite solitary books include The Remains of is The Enigma of Arrival, Jai?