Friday, 3 February 2012

open city [teju cole]

Open City is an idiosyncratic novel which plays a crafty game with its readership. Ostensibly a roman a clef, it tells the story of Julius, a Nigerian doctor who has come to work in New York. We don't know all that much about Teju Cole, but we do know he's a Nigerian who's come to live in New York. To what extent does Julius represent Teju? Is this an autobiographical novel?

Julius is the flaneur of New York City, and Brussels, documenting his chance encounters and observations. At times it feels as though he's going nowhere, just round in circles. Chance encounters where he defines himself as a visitor and an African, but also a citizen of the metropolis. Whether Julius' views are identical to Teju's is the novel's chief conceit and whenever we feel as though we're getting comfortable, something comes along to disrupt the reader's assumptions.

The section of the book which feels the tightest is when Julius leaves New York and travels to Brussels. Out of his comfort zone, in a dreary, Wintry European town, haunted by his long lost German grandmother, Julius' observations seem even more acute. He has a casual sexual encounter. He meets up with some North Africans and finds himself walking the line between the Third and First, Muslim and Christian, Black and White worlds. These characters, like figures out of Lorraine Adams' Harbor, occupy the hinterland on the edge of the Western World, where he, the Nigerian exile, might also belong, but so clearly doesn't.

At times, Open City is dazzling. At others, it feels mundane. It articulates the voice of a dispassionate observer, something echoed in Cole's laconic tweets. If you go to Flickr you can see the author's remarkable photographs. Cole has the eye of an artist, adrift in the wide world, unsure of his place, as are so many in our transient society. Don't go to him looking for clear storylines or concrete beginnings, middles and ends. Rather, join him on his peripatetic walk through the crumbling edifice of our civilisation. His approach, for all his love of Flemish painting and 19th century classical music, has all the hallmarks of the itinerant African narrative, relocated to another place, tone and sensibility.

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