NOTE: Initially published June 4, 2011 on Next.
Teju Cole’s enigmatic new book ‘Open City’ is truly unusual. Imagine a book that, when doused with the rich waters of the writer’s curiosity and intellect, grows exponentially until it overwhelms the reader’s senses. In this experiment, Cole takes a different approach to writing a novel. There is virtually no plot to the novel, to use the term novel loosely, and the author dispenses with the use of quotes in dialogue. Thankfully, ‘Open City’ is a monologue a lot of times; Julius is in love with the sound of his own voice. Furthermore, it seems that every plot is hatched and allowed to promptly disappear into the catacombs of New York City and Europe, the settings for the book. The novel is rich and messy. Just like life.
Inspecting the catacombs ‘Open City’ is about myriad issues, most of them unrelated. The main character, Julius, an uber-brainy restless German-Nigerian, seems devoid of humour, appears to be clinically depressed and walks around New York City’s (and Europe’s) streets relentlessly, as if afflicted with the Sokugo. He picks up issues and conversations everywhere from the people and places he encounters along the way. Like a lonely prisoner exercising in a prison yard he ekes out snippets of conversations from fellow prisoners: “At first, I encountered the streets as an incessant loudness, a shock after the day’s focus and relative tranquillity, as though someone had shattered the calm of a silent private chapel with the blare of a TV set.” These are fascinating walks. Julius has a philosopher’s eye for detail and nuance; he is a restless spirit chasing his soul’s shadow. He walks around with an attitude, bearing a rarefied, perhaps contrived air of a know-it-all scholar. In the process, a historian’s gaze falls heavy on New York, and we can say the city will never be the same again.
Cole wrote ‘Open City’ his way and let the book find its audience. This is an interesting, perhaps brilliant approach to writing a novel and sharing one’s ideas. It is a tough book to follow if you are a mere mortal like me with garden-variety brains; it is an acquired taste because it is too rich in erudition but I highly recommend it. It grows on you. Do keep your smartphone tuned to Google; you will need an explanation of virtually every other word. Even the title, ‘Open City’ is of historical significance, google it. There are all these influences that are alien to the reader, the mind keeps asking, who is so and so? Julius muses darkly, “In that sonic fugue, I recalled St Augustine, and his astonishment at St. Ambrose, who was reputed to have found a way to read without sounding out the words.” And the reader wonders: Who are these people and why are they reading to themselves?
In an important sense, ‘Open City’ amply demonstrates the failure of the book as a traditional vessel of expression to contain all the vibrant ideas of a brain on steroids. Each nanosecond in Julius’s over-stimulated life is a digital picture recorded with too much detail. Slices of history are disjointed in an eclectic way. The book as a medium of expression does Cole’s robust ideas an immense injustice. It fails magnificently to carry the weight of Cole’s ideas and brilliance. Endless are the possibilities; endless is the genius that radiates out of Cole’s brooding demons. I imagine the book’s next reincarnation as a digital experiment on the Internet with every word that I did not understand configured as a hot link to even more ideas, with the streets of Manhattan plotted and mapped out, in 3-D, as a restless Julius, afflicted with the Sokugo, treks from dawn to dusk. And no, I will not tell you what the Sokugo is. Google it.
Immigration and colourful civilisations ‘Open City’ is definitely a refreshing and eclectic departure from the usual immigrant-suffering-in-Babylon offering. Weaving in and out of different civilisations, pondering multiple intelligences, Julius fills the reader’s head with the philosophies of the West and the Orient. But then Africa rears its dark head in this book, and it is never good. One of the few philosophers of colour Julius can muster is a blind beggar in Nigeria turning sage-tricks for alms. Naipaul is smirking: I told you so. There are only a precious few characters in the book that can truly engage the narrator’s intelligence. There is Professor Saito, the Japanese American. There is Dr Annette Mailotte the Belgian; and there is Farouq the Middle Easterner obsessing about Palestine and Israel. ‘Open City’ should be required reading in the catacombs of the world’s foreign offices where intellectuals and civil servants plot the next arcane law to throw at the truly dispossessed caught in that river of crocodiles called immigration. Through Julius, Cole captures the futility of the movement of people, races, civilisations, trees, bees, bed bugs, any and everything, even the air.
Through all this, Julius is a walking enigma. He obsesses and reflects with compassion on the history of savagery and injustice. However, when he is confronted with injustice in the present tense, especially concerning people of colour, he recoils with cutting indifference. Julius describes the journey of a black immigrant asylum seeker facing deportation with rich whiffs of incredulity, as if he is reading a third rate child-soldier story written by a third rate African writer turning story tricks for quick bucks. You wonder if he believes this warrior. He recoils from meaningful contact and discourse with the world’s downtrodden, less fortunate fellow immigrants: asylum seekers, taxi drivers, dishwashers, and security men manning museums built for smug overbearing intellectuals. Each time an African immigrant reaches out to him, he rejects the hand with cloying condescension. Who are these people? Surely they also have their own stories.
Interestingly, to me, the most moving and profound words in the book were uttered by an African American poet toiling inside a US post office as a clerk. He tries to engage an unimpressed Julius intellectually by sharing a poem: “We are the ones who received the boot. We, who are used for loot, trampled underfoot. Unconquered. We, who carry the crosses. Yes, see? Our kith and our kin used like packhorses, We of the countless horrific losses. Assailed by the forces, robbed of choices, silenced voices. And still unconquered. You feel me? For four hundred and fifty years. Five centuries of tears, aeons of fears. Yet, still we remain, we remain, we remain the unconquered.” Deep words, still, Julius’s words drip with condescension as he describes the poet as one “moved by his own words.” He makes “a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” Naipaul would be proud of this.
Julius seems to have issues with his own identity and Africans. In talking about Nigeria, he alludes to another world, almost unspoken, as if with embarrassment (“my mind went to a hunting party flushing rabbits out of their holes”). As an aside, Cole’s book does not come with robust notes, appendices, and keys for explaining all those great Western writers and philosophers and classical musicians that Julius knows and delights in showing off on every page of his restless walk. Cole expects the reader to know these people or do the research. Contrast that with how Nigerian writers painstakingly provide helpful annotations, detailed footnotes and apologetic explanations for egusi, ofensala, ogbono, Rex Lawson, ogogoro, Gabriel Okara, Buchi Emecheta, etc. I do love Cole’s approach; let the reader do the research. African writers please take note; let your Western customers do the research.
Mimicry, narcissism and the Other ‘Open City’ wittingly or unwittingly dissects the duplicity and dishonesty of the intellectual of colour. Cole meticulously charts the lives of immigrants as they plod through the journey that is their life, this relentless movement that is coldly called immigration. However, Julius does not invest time in the dispossessed. He has strong opinions on what happened to them, not on what is happening to them. He finds natural kinship in those who have strong voices and opinions and who deploy them to whining about their lot as the Other. Their identification as the Other is for them an inconvenience to be branded as racism, bigotry, etc. It loosens liberal wallets and sells books. We come in full contact with the narcissism and arrogance that blind and bind the views of many intellectuals of colour, and present their vision as the bible.
Julius is a narcissistic bundle of contradictions. He is indifferent to a cripple at a stop light; and when he reflects on his breakup with his girlfriend, it is clinical – and it is a function of his narcissism that his girlfriend’s character is half-formed, inchoate. There is only room for one person in this relationship. His observation of the physically disabled leads him to an interesting musing about Obatala, the closest that Julius comes to reflecting on the deep, rich philosophy and mythologies of the land of his ancestry According to Julius, Obatala is “the demiurge charged by Olodumare with the formation of humans from clay. Obatala did well at the task until he started drinking. As he drank more and more, he became inebriated, and began to fashion damaged human beings. The Yoruba believe that in this drunken state he made dwarfs, cripples, people missing limbs, and those burdened with debilitating illness. Olodumare had to reclaim the role he had delegated and finish the creation of humankind himself and, as a result, people who suffer from physical infirmities identify themselves as worshippers of Obatala. This is an interesting relationship with a god, one not of affection or praise but of antagonism. They worship Obatala in accusation: it is he who has made them as they are. They wear white, which is his colour, and the colour of the palm wine he got drunk on.” We are all Obatala’s children.
Deconstructing the book and us The book exposes the savagery of civilised societies, built for and populated by savages. As one of the characters says about the fate of Native Americans, “it’s a difficult thing to live in a country that has erased your past.” Let me warn the reader again; this is one dense book, busy with issues on every page, absolutely nothing bothering mankind escapes Julius’s eyes: racism, global warming, Idi Amin, Ugandan Indians, Japanese American internment camps, bedbugs, birds, immigration, sexuality, date rape, the Palestinian question, Zionism, 9-11, the pace is dizzying and manic.
Chapter Eight is prophetic in how it almost foretells the Mideast uprising. It is deeply profound, with some strong but refreshingly bold opinions. The novel is relentlessly dismal, apocalyptic even in the past tense. Moving was Cole’s depiction of savagery and brutality in Nigeria’s boarding schools as he depicted Julius’s life as a boy at the Nigerian Military School. Although the narration is almost clinical, the author somehow pulls it off.
In Open City, the reader is turned into a psychiatrist and the mind becomes the couch. Julius talks nonstop, sometimes, it is numbing. However, once you get past the narcissistic self-absorption of the main character and his sidekicks, ‘Open City’ reveals itself as an important book, offering profound insights into a changing world. It is not nearly enough though: He browses past Harlem, not much going on there, as Naipaul would say, not much civilisation here, no thinkers to engage. Julius sees karma in the demise of companies like Blockbuster (a video rental chain) but there is little analysis where it matters as to how and why, and the effect of globalisation. Here, opinions are informed, one suspects, by a left-leaning liberal ideology: “They had made their profits and their names by destroying smaller, earlier local businesses.” There is a valuable lesson here. Julius walks nonstop meeting people and issues and expressing disdain for positions taken. His attitude is a quiet, perhaps overly enthusiastic evangelical rebuke of anti-curiosity and anti-intellectuality.
Loving and hating Julius I loved Julius, I hated Julius. He is a Walter Mitty character, a creep even. Julius is eclectic, some would say too eager to appear so, precise, almost anally-retentive. He knows his Chopin, Bach partitas, Beethoven sonatas and Shostakovich symphonies by heart. The peasant reader asks: Who are these people that Julius knows on a last-name basis? Who is Veláquez? Gilles Deleuze? Gaston Bachelard? Paul Claude? Julius comes across as a caricature of the African intellectual schooled in Western ways and loudly wearing his intellect like a pimp overwhelmed by his loud clothes. I estimate that Julius would need to have lived three productive lifetimes to acquire all the education and erudition he displays. Or lived one sad lifetime immersed in the study of Western books, classical music, art and architecture. I could not follow the streets of New York as Julius mapped them. I could not imagine them, the grid, the life, the noise, Julius seems entombed in the cloying clammy coldness of his thoughts. Sometimes, the novel reads like the thinly veiled autobiography of someone with several unresolved personal issues. It is hard not to imagine Julius as Cole.
Western reviewers have been generous in their praise of Cole’s book although some, desperate to share the same rarefied intellectual space that Cole apparently lives in, have gone overboard in the manufacture of inane babble-speak. Their disconnectedness from the lived experience in Nigeria is amusing and sad. There is a piece about a crime in the book that deeply disturbs and rattles the perspectives of a number of Western reviewers. Moralities are assumed to be universal across the seas; there is no discussion as to the context in the society that Julius came from.
Julius, bedbugs and the identity question This book is really about identity, starting with the question, who really is Julius? As he is being beaten by two thugs in a New York neighbourhood, Julius is musing philosophical thoughts. Who does that? Julius is many things. He has an exaggerated sense of his own importance in the world. And New York flicks him off like a bedbug. New York is not Lagos. Sometimes, for Julius, the world is a cold museum housing mummified remains of the past. I can almost smell the formaldehyde. The introspection is contrived, overwrought in most places. It is as if Cole was determined to empty his history, philosophy and art textbooks in the bowels of the novel. Some would argue that Julius is pretentious. Sometimes, details seem contrived. Julius can tell the species of birds dotting the skies high up above. His knowledge of classical music is encyclopedic; he knows dogs apart by breed.
He is dismissive of jazz: “Too often, it merely sounded sweet to me, cloying even, and I especially disliked it as background music.” Julius on classical music: “I returned to my browsing, moving from bin to bin, from reissues of Shostakovich symphonies played by long-forgotten Soviet regional orchestras to Chopin recitals by fresh-faced Van Clyburn Competition runners-up…” He is eclectic, some would say too eager to appear so: “I recognised the recording as the famous one conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964. With that awareness came another: that all I had to do was bide my time, and wait for the emotional core of the work, which Mahler had put in the final movement of the symphony, I sat… and sank into reverie, and followed Mahler through drunkenness, longing, bombast, youth (with its fading) and beauty (with its fading). Then came the final movement, “Der Abschied,” the Farewell and Mahler, where he would ordinarily indicate the tempo, had marked it schwer, difficult.”
Open City is a mostly complex work of art that invites varied interpretations, a compressed book of books. No knowledge escapes Julius’s hyper-restless mind. He reminds the readers of the minutest detail. For instance he notes that in 1903, when Dr. Charles A. Campbell performed experiments on the bedbug cimex lectularius, he found that “bedbugs survived four months of isolation on a table in a sea of kerosene without food, they came through a deep freeze lasting 244 hours without being harmed, and were able to remain alive underwater for an indefinite period of time. The cunning of these insects… is remarkable and it appears that they have, to a certain extent, the power of reasoning. He described an experiment by Mr. N. P. Wright of San Antonio… in which, as Wright moved his bed farther and farther from the sides of the room, the bedbugs climbed up the wall to the precise height from which they could jump and land on him.”
Vladimir Nabokov and Teju Cole Random House has urged readers and reviewers to compare Open City with the works of Joseph O’Neill, Zadie Smith, W. G. Sebald and J. M. Coetzee. Cole certainly has had lots of literary influences. An intriguing, perhaps more appropriate influence would be Vladimir Nabokov. Literary scholars of literature would do well to study, compare and contrast Nabokov’s ‘Pnin’ with Cole’s ‘Open City’. There are great parallels between Pnin and Julius. Charles Poore, writing in the New York Times in 1957, noted that Pnin “is a comedy of academic manners in a romantically disenchanted world. The central character… becomes a sardonic commentary on the civilisation that produced him… an émigré of the old Russian school. He is tremendously proud of his American citizenship, enchanted with the glittering gadgetry of our culture, lonely, loquacious and heroic. He teaches classic Russian literature at Waindell… one of those small colleges whose existence is doing so much these days to add to America’s bulging store of scholarly satires.” Poore could have been talking about Cole’s Julius, the similarities are eerie. When talking about an African character Kenneth who wants to identify with him (“I am African just like you”), Julius gets irritated: “I felt a little sorry for him and the desperation in his prattle.” Sounds like what Pnin would have said.
Naipaul, Soyinka, Achebe, Said, these writers described the rage of the condition of people of colour. And each in his own way rejected the condition he found himself in. Cole has written a memorable book in the first person. It has been classified as a work of fiction even though there are parallels to his lived life. Avoiding the categorisation of ‘memoir’ allows Cole to ditch responsibility for the protagonist’s views and judgments. I wonder what he really thinks about these things. We may never know.