"Open City" is an astonishingly mature literary debut from New York City-based art historian and photographer Teju Cole and one well deserving of its ample critical acclaim for being amongst 2011's best novels. It's one of the finest stream-of-consciousness novels I have read, told vividly via crisp, descriptive prose worthy of comparison to Thomas Bernhard's; indeed, "Open City" seems more like a modern European novel written by the likes of Bernhard than any contemporary work of American fiction that I've read recently. Moreover Cole has rendered via his almost photographic-like prose -which isn't surprising since he is a fine New York City street photographer in his own right - a fictional portrait of contemporary post-9/11 New York City worthy of comparison with Pete Hamill's. In the young Nigerian-born, American-educated psychiatry resident Julius, Cole has given readers a compelling protagonist who spends much of the novel lost in thought, thinking not only about recent - as well as long ago past (in his Nigerian youth) - missteps in his personal life, his relationship with a favorite college professor, and of New York City's history, primarily within the context of its African-American community. Through separate journeys within his mind and a brief holiday trek to Brussels in search of his identity, Julius wrestles with issues as complex as his own biracial identity and America's - and especially New York City's - response to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. "Open City" marks the debut of an important new voice writing in the English language; a voice whose career will be worth noting in succeeding years.
on November 12, 2011
Teju Cole has embarked on an odessy. It is very clear from the onset that this author is extremely well read and very intelligent. I like his character. I enjoyed the many references to other authors either implicit or veiled. There is a moral component to this book but it is not thoroughly developed. This may be a good thing because the reader may chose to go exploring in their own head. The book takes you to places both physical and emotional. Some philisophical questions are presented but then not really developed, but that may be because the character has chosen consiously not to go there. His reference to the Red Army rape of women in Berlin in l945 was particulary interesting and I was left to ponder why the author chose to include this in the novel. At one point in reference to this tumultious period following the War, the character says " because I wasn't attentive, many details eluded me". Thats to bad ... becasue they elude the reader as well. All in all this is a good book... but it could have been a lot better.
"New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace..." This reads like an invitation to join an exploration of the place, its sounds and atmospheres, seen through the eyes of Julius, narrator of Teju Cole's debut novel, OPEN CITY. And it is! Julius is a German-Nigerian immigrant and works as a resident doctor in a NYC psychiatric clinic. As we follow him, meandering - initially aimlessly - through the streets in his neighbourhood and beyond, our eyes and minds are opened to much more than the sidewalks, the brownstones, the parks and other vistas passing by at walking pace... "Each neighbourhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight..." muses Julius as he lies in bed at night, organizing what he has seen during his walk,"until the forms began to morph into each other and assume abstract shapes unrelated to the real city". At times, Julius describes his environment with photographic clarity and precision, at others he blurs his vision, and looking into his own "mind's eye", delves deep into thought and memory: reflecting on historical events, his personal life, music, philosophy, literature and politics...". What evolves as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the narration and the narrator's mind is much more than another "stream-of-consciousness" story or another literary introduction to New York City and some of its illustrious people... Cole's book is a compelling example of "memory and reality merging into one": part city portrait, real and imagined, part journey into history and personal life, fused with insightful recollections on people he encounters and their perspectives on life in all its facets.
It may be his professional training and/or his personal history - growing up in Nigeria in a bi-racial family - Julius appears to always maintain his reserve and detachment, looking at his environment through the lens of the outsider. Somebody calls him a "journeyer", a "visionary", someone who "has traveled far". And he has, of course. His reflections on the aftermath of the destruction of the WTC or his discussion of the situation in the Middle East with Farouq, a North African immigrant in Brussels, are remarkable as they are affecting. But he is also a loner; having lost one girlfriend, he longs for another, no longer "available". He comes closest in his personal relations to his old professor, Dr. Saito. Yet, he is also restless, facing "this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud." While he is good at discovering the hidden stories in others, his own secret, if that is what it was, remains a mystery, caught between fact and fiction.
Teju Cole's book is exquisitely written, descriptive and imaginative: brilliant in many ways. But don't look for plot or straight forward narration. Go with the flow of the walks, and you get carried by their rhythms. Cole is also a professional photographer and one could easily imagine photographs inserted into the text, à la W.G. Sebald. There are other parallels between OPEN CITY and Sebald's genre-transcending novels. Do you need to know NYC to enjoy the walks with Julius? Not really, although, having walked along some of the streets and places, I feel motivated to return, book in hand. [Friederike Knabe]