By Teju Cole
Teju Cole’s debut novel is a fine account of an elusive Nigerian flâneur’s encounters with
Faber & Faber, 272pp, £12.99
Openness is the condition and the boast of every city: openness to new people, ideas, experiences. Yet an "open city", as Teju Cole points out in his justly acclaimed debut novel, is also one that preserves itself by refusing to fight: "Had Brussels's rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment during the Second World War, it might have been reduced to rubble. It might have been another Dresden."
So, is openness a sign of strength or of weakness? The question can be asked with equal pertinence about post-11 September 2001 New York, where most of Open City takes place, and about Julius, the novel's erudite, evasive narrator. In his aimless wandering and with his homing instinct for sites of ruin and loss, Julius is clearly a literary descendant of W G Sebald. The form of Open City, and something of its tone, will be familiar to any reader of The Rings of Saturn. Cole sends his narrative proxy on long walks, during which he muses on literature and history, helped along by brief encounters with friends, strangers and ghosts.
Yet while Julius, like Sebald's narrator, is saturated in the European past - the book is full of observations about van Eyck, Mahler, Barthes - his own memories are African and his scene of action is American. Born in Nigeria in the 1970s, Julius now lives in New York (in both of these ways he resembles his creator, though Cole is an art historian and his character is a psychiatrist). But when he explores the city, from the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan down to Chinatown and Wall Street, he sees it with an alienated eye that is as much a poet's as an immigrant's: "The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counter-instinctive death drive, into movable catacombs . . . all of us re-enacting unacknowledged traumas."
Inevitably, for a novel set in New York in the mid-2000s, the main trauma is the attack on the World Trade Center. "I remembered a tourist who once asked me how he could get to 9/11: not the site of the events of 9/11 but to 9/11 itself, the date petrified into broken stones," the author writes. It is a subject that has undone many more experienced writers; but Cole understands that the best way to get there is sideways, just as Julius finds his way to Ground Zero accidentally-on-purpose.
“I often think of the long 19th century, which, in all parts of the world, was one interminable bloodbath, an orgy of continuous killing, whether in Prussia or in the United States, or in the Andes or in West Africa," Julius muses. The reflection is redeemed from banality by the way he picks as an example of barbarism the very century we think of as a time of peace and progress. Our own era of peace, Cole suggests, is similarly illusory: "We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world." And the disaster for which New York was not prepared keeps coming back, in Open City, in the form of uninsistent metaphors: bodies packed into subway "catacombs", or, in the book's closing image, flocks of pigeons hurling themselves against the Statue of Liberty.
Yet Cole declines to turn exile and identity and violence, those timely topics, into mere occasions for editorialising. Rather, he treats them metaphorically and lyrically. In the first paragraphs of the novel, Julius tells us about his habit of taking long evening walks in Manhattan, his observation of migrating birds, and his preference for listening to classical music on internet stations from Europe: "I generally avoided American stations, which had too many commercials for my taste." These are three emblems of displacement, and they quietly define the novel's concerns just as they define Julius's personality - solitary, spectatorial, shy of commitment.
Julius's ironic self-consciousness is his best quality; it is what makes him a good narrator, and presumably a good psychiatrist: "I viewed each patient as a dark room, and . . . going into that room . . . I considered it essential to be slow and deliberate." It also gives him an unusually broad empathy with the past, whose remnants he finds even in the perpetually renovated landscape of Manhattan. Walking near City Hall, he thinks of the old African Burial Ground that was unearthed there in the 1990s: "Many of the skeletons had broken bones, evidence of the suffering they'd endured in life. Disease was common, too: syphilis, rickets, arthritis." But in another, visionary episode, when a man giving Julius a shoeshine begins speaking in the voice of a 19th-century slave, Cole allows him to offer a Christian endorsement of his own enslavement: "After a while,
I had enough money even for my own freedom, but I preferred the freedom within that house and that family to the freedom without. Service to Mrs Berard was service to God."
As these incidents suggest, it is questions of race that most insistently challenge Julius's privacy. Cole writes very well about the experience of being African in America and the way it places Julius at an angle to Americans both white and black. Several times during his walks through New York, other black men approach him with an expectation of solidarity: "looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; based, in other words, on our being 'brothers'".
As the quotation marks suggest, however, Julius is too jealously private to enter into that kind of friendly conspiracy. We see him rebuff a postal worker who wants to share his terrible Afrocentric poetry, and slight an African cab driver: "I wasn't sorry at all. I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me." And the more we learn about Julius, the more troubling his disclaimers seem. An old girlfriend, Nadege, is mentioned several times, but we never learn much about her, or their relationship; he is content to drift apart. He talks about a close male friend, but never gives his name.
More enigmatically still, Julius refers several times to a rift with his mother - a German woman who fled war-ravaged Europe and settled in Nigeria - but refuses to explain what caused it. Only a few episodes from his childhood, always introduced as though at random, begin to hint at the sources of his detachment: a scene of brutality at his military boarding school, his boyhood theft of a Coke from the family refrigerator.
It all leaves the reader unprepared for a revelation that comes near the end of the book - a shocking story from Julius's past which may or may not be true, but casts a retrospective shadow on everything we have learned from and about him. This is the one moment when Cole can be seen manipulating the book's plot, which otherwise unspools so naturally. Yet the contrivance is justified, finally, as a way of making explicit the book's constant question: is the hero's refusal to be claimed - by ideology, community, family - a moral victory, or a surrender? Even more than his perfectly sustained tone and his ruminative intelligence, it is Cole's ability to keep that question open which makes Open City such a compelling book.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His book "Why Trilling Matters" will be published this autumn by Yale University Press