“We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing in which significant persons and events float.” -Teju Cole, Open City
Sometimes a book sits at the corner of your awareness but, for whatever reason it remains there, a title and author you have encountered, and even entered into that mental note space which contains those books you were meaning to read, until one day you finally open it up and think: What took me so long?
Admittedly, Teju Cole’s Open City, originally published in 2011, is hardly a dusty old tome, but its relevance in the post 9/11 world becomes more acute with each passing day. At the heart of this meditative novel is Julius, a young man of mixed German and Nigerian ancestry who is completing the final year of his psychiatric residency at a New York City hospital. A sensitive and fragile narrator with widely eclectic interests ranging from Mahler to art to a keen eye for urban bird life; Julius spends much of his time walking the streets of New York, and, for one wet winter month, Brussels. He encounters strangers, visits with friends, explores parks and alleys. He is propelled by what seems to be a restless discontent: he has recently broken up with his girlfriend, he has a curious compulsion to see if his German grandmother is still alive, and he carries unresolved baggage from his childhood in Nigeria. Yet, as he nears the end of his psychiatric training, the respect he believes he has for the souls of the patients he treats, does not guarantee that he has any clearer sense of his own than, well, any of us do.
As much as Julius is an engaging, complex companion — at once insightful and shortsighted — it is Cole’s spare and evocative language that pulls the reader along on his journey. The frequent comparisons to WG Sebald are not without merit, both authors manage to create a hypnotic flow of reflective imagery rich with references to history, art, literature and film; but Open City speaks directly to the early 21st century, reframing questions of racial and ethnic identity, collective fear, violence, even mental illness, with a new and immediate relevance. I found myself wanting to linger in the pages, there are so many ideas packed into this slim volume.
In the days following the tragic events in Paris in January, Teju Cole wrote a very measured and sensitive response in The New Yorker, attempting to balance an appropriate reaction to the Charlie Hebdo situation in light the extreme violence committed, historically and presently, around the world. His challenge echoed the conversation his two disillusioned Moroccan intellectuals have with Julius in Brussels. They express their frustration at not being able to talk about Palestine as Muslims without being branded anti-Israel, despairing that no middle ground for dialogue is possible in some situations. The advantage in fiction, is that you can give characters voices to express contradicting, difficult and controversial perspectives. Julius’ encounters with a wide range of people, together with his own musings and self discoveries, provide a framework within which Teju Cole has created a novel that is deep, rich and timely.