Friday, 23 November 2018

Book Review: Open City by Teju Cole certain people, especially for those who stand out of the masses for one reason or another, be it in reality or just in their subjective experience, it seems to be harder than for others to find their proper place in the world. Even those who appear to have succeeded in life and to have a rich social life may feel isolated from the rest of the world without showing it on the outside. The protagonist of Open City by Teju Cole is one of these outsiders because having a white German mother and a black Nigerian father he feels that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. Moreover, Julius is a psychiatry fellow at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and a highly educated man with highbrow interests. When his girlfriend leaves him, he takes to walking through the streets whenever he can to clear his mind and to contemplate.

Teju Cole was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, in June 1975, but grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. At the age of seventeen he returned to the USA to get higher education at university. After receiving his bacholor’s degree he started medical studies, but gave them up to study History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He then continued his studies for a doctor’s degree in Art History at Columbia University. In 2007, Teju Cole made his debut as a writer with the novella Every Day is for the Thief that was followed since by the critically acclaimed as well as award-winning novel Open City (2011) and a collection of essays and criticism titled Known and Strange Things (2016). In addition, he writes for different periodicals and uses social media as a medium. Along with his writing, the author dedicates himself to photography. The pictures of his first solo exhibition in Milan were published in the photo book Blind Spot (Punto d’ombra: 2016). Teju Cole lives in Brooklyn, New York, USA.

Since his girlfriend left Julius and moved to San Francisco in autumn, he made it his habit to take long solitary walks through the streets of the Open City of New York. Almost every other evening he roams around inhaling the atmosphere of the always vibrant metropolis and giving himself over to the random musings and memories that it evokes. He discovered this sometimes aimless, sometimes purposeful wandering as a helpful counterpoint to his focused as well as busy workdays as psychiatry fellow in his final year at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Still, he feels and has always felt an outsider.
“The name Julius linked me to another place and was, with my passport and my skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart, in Nigeria. I had a Yoruba middle name, Olatubosun, which I never used. That name surprised me a little each time I saw it on my passport or birth certificate, like something that belonged to someone else but had been long held in my keeping. Being Julius in everyday life thus confirmed me in my not being fully Nigerian. […]”
Julius got estranged from his German mother in Lagos after having left Nigeria as a seventeen-year-old to study in the USA just like she had gotten estranged from her mother living in Belgium. During a three-week Christmas holiday in Brussels he looks for his grandmother, but the search is half-hearted and therefore leads nowhere. He often stays in his rented apartment to read and roams parks and museum district only occasionally. With a middle-aged Czech tourist he has a one-night stand. With a Moroccan student working in a telephone and Internet shop he makes friends discussing philosophy, literature and politics.
“[…] He was still just a man in a shop. He was a student, too, or had been one, but of what? Here he was, as anonymous as Marx in London. To Mayken and to countless others like her in this city, he would be just another Arab, subject to a quick suspicious glance on the tram. And of me, he knew nothing either, only that I had made phone calls to the United States and to Nigeria, and that I had been into his shop three times in five days. The biographical details had been irrelevant to our encounter. […]”
Back in New York City Julius resumes work and wandering through the streets. He sees a photo exhibition of Hungarian journalist Martin Munkácsi, he runs into a woman who happens to be the older sister of a school friend in Nigeria and now works as investment banker, he visits his sick former professor of literature and dropping by again some weeks later he learns of his death, he goes to a spring picnic in Central Park with friends, he gets mugged, he attends a concert of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and eventually, he becomes junior partner in a private practise.

The plot of Open City is rudimentary serving above all as the first-person narrative’s anchor in space and time, on the one hand, and as starting point for flashbacks on the protagonist’s Nigerian youth and for countless erudite ruminations about literature, music, photography, history, and so forth, on the other hand. Although split into two parts with altogether twenty-one chapters, the novel rather feels like a continuous stream-of-consciousness that follows (seemingly) arbitrary associations and still combines to a convincing whole. New York and temporarily Brussels as paragons of urban melting pots of different cultures and places of refuge for displaced persons and for fortune hunters alike are more than the geographical scene of the novel. The protagonist’s wandering mirrors his (futile?) search for a place where he truly belongs and doesn’t feel isolated due to his mixed descent. As a character he’s the entirely authentic epitome of an intellectual with the photographer’s eye for a good picture which fits perfectly with his profession. Admittedly, some of the instructive digressions felt a bit lengthy, but not annoyingly so thanks to the writer’s great skill. His language is precise and poetic with powerful images and metaphors that make it an engaging novel.

Despite my pronounced taste for novels focusing on their protagonists’ thoughts, I can’t deny that I would have preferred Open City by Teju Cole to be a little more action-driven or at least more centred. Probably, also the fact that I’ve never been to New York City, Brussels or Lagos and that I therefore must have missed some of the interrelations between the scene and the narrator’s musings to which it gives rise, lessened my pleasure in the read. But even so, I really liked the book on the whole and the numerous references to notable works of literature in particular. It’s certainly not a novel to everybody’s taste and some may find that the author showed off rather too obviously his interest as well as knowledge in a wide range of fields. Nonetheless, it’s a portrait of New York and of a well-educated German-Nigerian immigrant deserving of my recommendation.

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