Teju Cole, Open City (2011, Faber and Faber 2012)
Julius, the narrator–protagonist of this novel, is a psychiatrist by trade, but as far as we’re concerned he is a flâneur: we don’t quite have a word in English for such a person, one who strolls (flâne) around a city, observing people and things with a detached, intelligent curiosity, and no other agenda. Julius strolls from street to street, from church to bar, gallery to movie theatre to concert hall. He visits an old friend who is dying, phones a former girlfriend, has a casual sexual encounter, chats with the man who checks the air-conditioning vents on the subway, is mugged, runs into the sister of a friend from his teenage years. Almost always, he is moved by whim rather than intention, and when he does set out on a quest at one point, the quest comes to absolutely nothing.
The city is New York, though Julius visits Brussels for a spell and continues his flâning ways there. I didn’t read the book with a street map open beside it, but I expect that if I had I’d have known to within a block or two where I was on almost every page. The same goes for time: he visits and responds to particular films, concerts and exhibitions, and I’m reasonably sure that the date he saw them on could be approximated by a quick check of past issues of New York newspapers.
In a way, just as Julius’ wanderings trace the shape of the city, his encounters (not all of them are conversations) build a picture of the less tangible social and political world, mostly from perspectives other than the dominant one, as most of the people he talks to are not white – he himself is the Nigerian-born son of a German mother and a Nigerian father.
But the book is not the meandering bore or disguised tract that description may conjure up. True, it doesn’t have a central quest or conflict needing resolution. Also true, there are reflections on the state of racism and internalised racism in the US, on ‘political correctness’, on Middle Eastern politics. But none of the reflections amounts to a didactic ‘line’, and there is a quiet and unobtrusive overall arc. We get to know Julius, and start to wonder about him. He has an ambivalent attitude to African-Americans in general – welcoming the sense of connection but shying away from the enforcement of identity. He loves his old English professor and knows he is dying, yet visits him only twice over many weeks, and when he discovers on his third visit that his old friend has died, he resumes his peripatetic ways without missing more than a beat. There is a striking lack of affect in his account of a sexual encounter with a Czech woman in Brussels. His quest to find his German grandmother is oddly half-hearted. His music references are incredibly erudite, and you might start to wonder if ‘incredible’ might be more precise than it at first seems – that he might be straining to project an image of himself as a man of high culture. It’s not that we’re being given a coded alternative version, but we realise that, perhaps inadvertently, he is telling us a lot about what it means to be a mixed-heritage, middle-class African immigrant to the US. Perhaps it’s a sop to the conventional reader that there is a surprise revelation towards the end, but I found it both disturbing and deeply satisfying that Julius lets the revelation sit on the page with only a broad introductory comment, as if he is as stunned by it as we are.
I’m not sure what the title means. An open city, in the usual wartime context of the term, has declared that it will not defend itself in case of attack. Perhaps Manhattan is wide open, ready to yield its secrets to anyone who wants to walk its streets and buildings with eyes and mind on the alert. Or perhaps Julius is the open city of the title – laying himself out there without defensiveness.
Open City was one of the books I took home from our last Book[-swapping] Club. It took me months to actually pick it up because I’m generally suspicious of books and movies that treat New York as a cosmos. This isn’t one of those.