Title: Open City
Author: Teju Cole
Publisher: Faber and Faber Ltd, UK (2011)
“AND SO when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city,” declares Julius, a young German-Nigerian psychiatrist, and the narrator of Open City, Teju Cole’s new novel, in the opening line.
The city is New York, Manhattan to be precise, and the walks (“a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work”) form the ‘plot’ of the narration. It is therefore the reader’s challenging but immensely rewarding task to keep up with Julius on all his wanderings and wonderings.
A heightened sensitivity to the world around him means that the uber-eloquent (more an internal eloquence, perhaps) Julius is able to register such phenomena as the “psychic weight” of different neighbourhoods, and to slip through the programming of classical music radio into what he describes as a “sonic fugue.”
“New York is no Lagos, …in Lagos, every day is for the thief…”
Through its abundant deployment of images and allusions and memories, the narration constantly widens beyond the immediacy of the walks and of the psychic weight of New York, to explore several concepts: classical music, Yoruba culture, New York and world history, amongst others.
But it also gets deeply personal, when the widening expands (or should that be ‘reverses’?) to capture Julius’ own history; a tumultuous past in Nigeria marked by tensions within his relatively small (by Nigerian standards) family: German grandmother, German mother, Nigerian father and him, the mixed-race son.
New York is no Lagos (the setting of Cole’s similarly structured debut novel, Every Day is for The Thief), even though Julius and the unnamed narrator of Every Day might well be the same person. If, in Lagos, every day is for the thief (area boys, policemen, CD pirates, pickpockets, petrol station attendants, amongst others), in Julius’ post-911 New York every day is for stranger things, the “disembodied voices” of internet radio announcers, the pigeons, wrens, sparrows and swifts that claim the skies (the novel opens and ends with images of birds; flying in the beginning, falling to their death at the end), New York’s multitudes of zombie-like residents, etc.
Julius is an intelligent, knowledgeable character, with a mind that seems modelled after Wikipedia. He is arguably too self-absorbed, and too keen on displaying the breadth of his knowledge, to be truly likeable. But in Teju Cole’s hands he manages to become the narrator of an immensely fascinating, deeply engaging novel.
Cole’s prose is brilliant. There will be several moments when you, the reader, will pause to digest yet another profound observation, or catch your breath from the force of yet another startlingly inventive image or turn of phrase.
At every such moment, I can guarantee that the world around you will suddenly seem different. It will be your own ‘Open City’ moment.