A novel for the bad cosmopolitans of the world
There are many novels about New York, and there are many novels about people trying to make a life in New York. There are also many novels about the migrant in New York, novels that all seem to follow postcolonial patterns of displacement and discontent. Open City is not one of them. This book was not like anything I had previously read – or rather, it was an amalgamation of everything I had previously read … and then something more. Perhaps, dare we say it, something “original” (and here I am stealing from the New Yorker review of the book, so the use of this word is totally legitimized by someone higher up the food chain than I).
Julius, the narrator of the novel, is born and raised in Lagos to a Nigerian father and German mother. However, most of the book takes place in New York City, where he is stationed during his final year of a psychiatry fellowship. Here, he starts taking in the city and its myriad of peoples through his daily walks that take him to far and unknown corners of the metropolis.
“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city … These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.”
These walks are the action that drives the narrative forwards, at the same leisurely pace that Julius seems to observe the city with. Yet despite this first person narration, we never get fully close to Julian. The prose feels oddly distant, as if he himself is somewhat removed from himself, or seeing himself from the outside. This is also enhanced by his seeming disregard for his own history and heritage, which only crops up in the beginning when other people address him. “Brother”, an African taxi driver says to him. “Brother”, a black man in the bar says to him. “Brother”, he says only once to a Moroccan salesman in Brussels. Julius does not like being claimed in this way, we come to understand.
Julius is a 21st century flaneur, an African expatriate in a post-9/11 New York, a cosmopolitan crossing the borders of nations and cultures, both with body and mind. These themes are explored in his many encounters with strangers which, along with his walks (and in many ways occasioned by them), are what make up the majority of the novel. Somehow, Julius is always in conversation with himself, with the city around him, or with the different people that he meets. In these conversations, which are recounted in great detail, Julius manages to tie in a wide assortment of cultural references, mostly to European philosophy, art and culture, though this is also mixed with a worldly knowledge of many cultures. It reminds me of Sebald, but then, of course, seen through the eyes of a different history than the European one. Julius is, in many ways, the elitist cosmopolitan.
However, the distance that I felt to Julius, and the distance he seems to have towards himself and the people he encounters, is a constant presence. It is as though he is never truly transformed through these conversations, never truly takes in what is being said, and why it is being said. Instead, he reads each stranger analytically, not questioning his own observations. This is especially clear in his encounter with Faroukh, the Moroccan immigrant to Brussels, whose fiery political engagement he summarizes as follows:
“He, too, was in the grip of rage and rhetoric. I saw that, attractive though his side of the political spectrum was. A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves … 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?”
The last few sentences in this paragraph – ”having no causes”, “being magnificently isolated from all loyalties” – describes Julius exactly. Yet the last question is left hanging, unanswered, unexamined. And, as we near the end of the novel, we increasingly start to question Julius’ perception of himself.
Open City is a wonderful book because it is enigmatic, unpredictable, somehow incredibly tedious and yet highly abstract at the same time. It’s one of the few books I have read where the actual, explicit discussion of politics rendered the book more, not less, literary. As a reader, one can choose to celebrate Julius’ movement through life as a true cosmopolitan – or one can question it, wondering whether conversations that don’t lead to change are truly, in essence, cosmopolitan.
I read the latter. Hence, a novel for the bad cosmopolitans of the world. Or, at least, a novel about a bad cosmopolitan in the world.
Teju Cole’s Open City was released in 2011. Read more about the book, or pick up a copy at Ark Books’ store on Møllegade.