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Ghost History – Teju Cole’s Open City

It feels premature to say that Teju Cole’s Open City (Random House, 2011) is a profound novel, but it may just be.  Infused with ideas, politics, history, literature and music (especially Mahler), Open City is intelligent, elegiac, beautifully written, and ambitious.  Cole is a keen and astute observer of the complex concoction that makes up contemporary life and he slides easily between the micro and the macro.   With the theme of immigration at its core, Open City tackles such topics as the politics of fearful post 9/11 America, radical Islam, post-colonial Africa, and a Europe that is getting crushed between its past and its future.

Julius, an immigrant from Nigeria who is of mixed German and Nigerian parentage, is in New York studying to become a psychiatrist.  He is something of a loner with no apparent close friends, although people naturally open up to him, talk to him, tell him their story.  Julius’ first-person narrative is written in hauntingly simple, almost documentary prose.  It’s strength is the clarity with which it slowly, effortlessly exposes Julius’ mind to us in a way that becomes startlingly intimate before we even realize it.  Perhaps Cole’s greatest success in Open City is his creation of Julius, who is one of the most vulnerable characters I can remember.

In his free time, Julius wanders the city by foot and by subway, describing what he sees and hears and thinks, giving us, among other gifts, a remarkable panoramic image of New York City and its history.  Julius clearly loves his adopted city but he is dedicated to scraping below the veneer for the ghosts of New York’s shameful past.  Like the wanderings of W.G. Sebald, Cole’s perambulations move through time as well as space.  In one typical scene, Julius is in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, where “the Tetris-like line of buildings sat in the still afternoon air.”  While women watch their children enjoy the playground there, Julius recounts the history of the slave trade that operated out of the city’s ports, bringing riches to the city’s bankers and merchants even well after slave trading became unlawful.

Although it takes place predominantly in New York, Open City also follows Julius on an extended trip to Brussels during a half-hearted attempt to locate his maternal grandmother.  And it is there – not in New York – that Cole uses the phrase “open city.”

…there had been no firebombing of Bruges, or Ghent, or Brussels.  Surrender, of course, played a role in this form of survival, as did negotiation with invading powers.  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.

An open city, then, is both guilty and saved.  Or perhaps it must be guilty in order to be saved.  Julius never makes it clear if he thinks Brussels’s decision was an act of shame or of realpolitik.  (Perhaps it was both.)   Open City deals with heady contemporary issues and throughout Julius is confronted with people who want to pigeonhole his identity and who want to recruit him to their vision or their cause.  Africans claim his identity and heritage (even though he is half German), African Americans call him brother, Islamists try to radicalize him, but almost uniformly Julius wants no part of causes or labels.

The Buddhas smiled at the scene with familiar serenity, and all the smiles seemed to be one smile, that of those who had stepped beyond human worries, the archaic smile that also played on the lips on the funeral steles of Greek kouroi, smiles that portended not pleasure but rather total detachment.

Nevertheless, on at least one occasion, Julius wonders if his intense desire to maintain neutrality isn’t simply a mask for indecision.

It was a cause, and I was distrustful of causes, but it was also a choice, and I found my admiration for decisive choice increasing, because I was so essentially indecisive myself.

And elsewhere, at what seems like the crucial point toward which the entire novel has been headed:

A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves, and for so many, all that mattered was the willingness to do something.  Action led to action, free of any moorings, and the way to be someone, the way to catch the attention of the young and recruit them to one’s cause, was to be enraged.  It seemed as if the only way this lure of violence could be avoided was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties.  But was that not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?

Reviewers, along with one of the book’s blurb writers, Anthony Doerr, have been mentioning Teju Cole in the same sentence with W.G. Sebald (among other writers), and there are certainly many points that will bear comparison.  But make no mistake about it, Cole is a strong new and independent voice and he is making his own determined way as a writer.

In January 2008, I wrote about his Cole’s first novel Every Day Is for the Thief, which was published in Nigeria.  During a return visit to his homeland, the narrator begins to nurture his desire to be a writer.  I wrote then:

In an internet cafe the narrator discovers the world of the “419 yahoo yahoos” (named after the section of the criminal code they violate), the young men whose endless email scams clog the in-boxes of computers around the globe.  Horrified, yet fascinated, he begins to glimpse the creativity, hope, and persistence that is spawned by Nigeria’s desperation. The narrator, who has aspirations to be a writer, slowly realizes that there is a “wealth of stories available here” and no one to tell them. Like his literary heroes Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he muses on the possibility of telling those stories himself.

And now he has done just that.

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