Open City by Teju Cole
Open Questions in an Open City
Perhaps Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde did us a clumsy favor in the creation of the “Hottentot Venus” cake that premiered in April 2012 at a party for the Swedish minister of culture. An online video of the cake, a grotesque golliwog caricature of an African woman designed to be cut at its genitals, sparked outrage—and even calls for the minister’s resignation.
The video gives us a view of the party-goers, presumably Swedish art patrons and government officials, as they swallow the inherent repulsion the art installation raises in an effort to be “in” on the artsy joke. It seems a window into that mysterious, sinister process by which people end up consenting to be oppressors, unlearning a natural instinct to be appalled at cruelty to a human “other.” We watch those caught on film make the unconscious trade-off: They squash human instinct to be on the joke’s inside, to belong to a privileged class. Ultimately Linde’s aims seem confused—he himself claims his piece means to be some sort of comment on female genital mutilation in Africa. But his parody of racism turns the sad joke back onto the artist-jokester.
In its far more self-aware way, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s first novel, Open City, leads the reader to the kinds of questions a more adroit artist might have been aiming for in the creation of the monstrous cake: Who gets let in on the joke in a global culture founded on legacies of massacre? Whose joke is it? Should we laugh at the horror to reject it? Or should we, like Open City’s main character Julius, survey it all with clinical remove, disassociate ourselves from our own complicity, lose touch with essential parts of ourselves in the process?
Teju Cole means modern-day New York as the “open city” in the title of his first novel. NYC is the very city that American readers still turning to fiction for answers to the questions of 9/11 have come to anticipate almost by reflex in the books they choose, particularly in the wake of well-known 9/11 novels like Column McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and Johnathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
In Open City, narrator Julius keeps a detached scientific eye on the world. A young Nigerian-American psychiatrist in residency at a hospital in Harlem, he listens all day to the tortured personal stories of the clinically insane. He has developed ways of viewing suffering at a remove: He takes a good hard look at human pain, then neatly divides it into its categories and files it into compartments. He applies this clinical, precise way of seeing to everything and everyone he encounters. His gaze also makes him—or allows him to—miss critical insights into his own past.
In his down time from the hospital, Julius indulges a serious walking habit, and this book moves like the brisk walk of a meticulous observer. Julius seems to carefully notice everyone he meets over the course of his 272-page journey. Readers find no anonymous strangers here. We’re pulled deeply into the stories of the homeless people Julius passes on the street, the clerks he chats up at stores, the people sharing his car on the subway.
Uncompromisingly global in its span, Open City defies categorization as a typical “immigrant novel.” It should rather be seen as a proclamation of our age’s disintegration of borders, as so many of its characters move back and forth between global souths and global norths, across oceans and back. The characters, including Julius, also move fluidly between tongues, grasping at French, Yoruba, German, English or Arabic in search of the most efficient and vital ways to connect.
In its transcendence of national, cultural and social boundaries, this book fills a real void in the landscape of American letters. In Open City, Teju Cole makes the kinds of borderless connections between lives in different parts of the world that many of us have long been craving to see reflected in our literature: The city of his novel is blown wide open as our world these days is blown wide open. These characters are citizens of the world, not nations, and they contend with multiple allegiances to multiple identities. This has increasingly become our reality these days, and at last an American novel captures that.
Growing up in Nigeria, Julius, son of a German mother and Nigerian father, often found himself viewed by others as a mixed-race son of privilege, though he himself cares little for this identification. He feels uneasy, in fact, with most terms of identity imposed on him by others, equally uncomfortable when other black men in New York call him “brother.”
Many closest connections are elderly. Julius seems able to relate better to people at the end of their lives than to those who have not yet stopped to stare at death from the precipice—the “one-way border,” as Cole lyrically names it. But Julius also seems to seek from elderly strangers the familial connections from which he’s been severed. At one point, Julius drops all his goings-on to take a flight from New York to Brussels, where he spends a few weeks in a vague, half-hearted search for his maternal grandmother, called oma—the estranged mother of the German mother who is estranged from Julius himself.
This plot twist in some ways strikes a reader as a random and never quite fully justified diversion. To be fair, the trip to Belgium does introduce us to more fascinating strangers for Julius’s precise eye, and to a new cultural and historical context for Cole’s musings. But this sort of leap in the story’s movement jars the reverie of the novel’s extended dream. At times Cole convinces us that the beauty of his insights, laid out perfectly and poetically, compensate for such narrative interruptions.
But atrocity is nothing new, not to humans, not to animals. The difference is that in our time it is uniquely well-organized, carried out with pens, train carriages, ledgers, barbed wire, work camps, gas. And this late contribution, the absence of bodies. No bodies were visible, except the falling ones, on the day America’s ticker stopped.
-page 50 of Open City
Through Julius’s historical notes on the world around him, Open City attempts to come to terms with some of the horrifying legacies of the blood-filled 19th and 20th centuries—the endless wars, the unending massacres.
Here shine the author’s unique talents for bringing cold facts to life. The book reads in some ways like a dirge, a mourning song for the “numberless dead,” as its author has called them. The specter of bloody history looms heavy, at times even obscuring the story itself. Open City wrestles with horror on the most minute and grandest scales of the human experience—the wars within us and our battle scars, the wars within families and between nations, and the carnage left in their wakes.
The wide, infinite face of history takes a number of guises. In one example, Julius becomes fascinated with the architect who built Heliopolis, the suburb where Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak had his home. (The deposing of Mubarak the very year Cole’s book came out lends new weight to the work.) Narrator Julius keeps a photograph of Heliopolis; it eventually finds its way to a wall of the office in his psychiatric practice.
The tree of heaven, after which Betty Smith famously titled her 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, also finds its way into the historical notes strewn like glittering trinkets through the novel. “Botanists call it an invasive species,” Julius’s only friend tells him the day his former professor lies on his deathbed, “But aren’t we all?”
Cole’s novel should be considered a worthy offering in the long line of contemporary literature by writers of Nigerian origin, stretching back to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Nigerian writers continue to dominate the pickings of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writers. We have Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka; Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri; and Helon Habila and Helen Oyeyemi, whose novels came out just last year. Clearly, Nigeria and its diaspora consistently produce both stirring and lauded English-language fiction.
The Nigerian phenomenon seems born of the polygamous marriage between rich and diverse indigenous cultural traditions, a British colonial past and a sharp reckoning with postcolonial realities. Building a solid home within this tradition, Cole joins Nigerian writers living abroad like Chimananda Adiche, mentioned by first name on Open City’s acknowledgements page, and Chris Abani, whose work similarly explores the explicitly political with fearless intensity.
But though we attempt place Cole within the specific literary context of Nigeria and its children, perhaps no one culture can claim a writer anymore. The open city of this novel is situated within an open world—just as all of us alive now are unmoored, fumbling to put together the pieces of cultures shattered in collision with one another. Borders in our world disappear and shift shape like mirages on a desert horizon.
And like his borderless novel—and its ideas that seem to strain at the reins of the narrative form—Cole’s prowess as a writer overflows to fill new media. He often tweets on a phenomenon of our times—people from cultures much to blame for an underdeveloped Africa tend to construct themselves as the only ones who can save it. Witness the numerous entreaties of celebrities to save the children in Africa, the women in Africa, the animals in Africa, all the assumed African pitiable.
In April, Cole’s burst of Twitter activity on such subjects brought him global attention and, in full disclosure, finally led me to dust off the copy of Open City I’d been given a year ago. This Twitter activism serves as a powerful demonstration of one way an artist might use electronic platforms to extend and supplement the role of author, in times when some authors, such as Jonathan Franzen, challenge the legitimacy of new media for novelists and their readers.
Cole expounded on his tweets in a piece called “The White Industrial Complex,” written for The Atlantic, where he drew links to the dissenting views of the film Kony 2012. The movie is funded by an organization that hopes to see war criminal and Ugandan resistance leader Joseph Kony arrested and tried by an international court.
In his Atlantic article, Cole asserts, “ my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think.” Open City can surely be considered a success by this measure, with its haunting twist of an ending. At the same time, it may be that Cole’s greatest gifts as a writer point beyond the form of the novel. However he may choose to channel those gifts next, we can expect his words will be among the most uniquely illuminating of our times.
Chantal James is a Carolina-raised ATLien. Her fiction is represented by the Karpfinger Agency, and she has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Morocco and a Vermont Studio Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter @chantalalive.