Preocupied with multiculturalism, grounded in urban existence, and resounding with echoes of highbrow European culture, Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City, would certainly appear messy and pedantic if written by a lesser writer. Thankfully, Cole writes with an even hand, and in a subtle fashion that makes some of his more common, or at least oft-repeated, stances digestible and sometimes quite powerful.
Chronicling the wanderings of a half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatrist from New York, the novel progresses with only the loose structure of flanerie over the course of several months. Julius, the protagonist, walks the area between Morningside Heights and Lower Manhattan, narrating with erudite contemplations and incisive reflections on his childhood and adolescence. A brief trip to Brussels only transports the same narrative structure to another city, where Julius walks and muses in a similar vein — although his half-hearted search for his distant German oma focuses the melancholy of his travels there.
Thematically, the novel remains close to its narrator’s cosmopolitan worldview, which acts as a bulwark against any real or perceived sectarianism. Not only is Julius a product of hybridity (Nigerian father, German mother, American education / residence) but he frequently positions himself as a skeptic of ethnic and racial solidarity. Two early episodes underscore this preoccupation:
Not good, not good at all, you know, the way you came into my car without saying hello, that was bad. Hey, I’m African just like you, why you do this? . . . I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me . . . Anger had welled up within me, unhinging me, the anger of shattered repose.
Are you Yoruba? Kenneth was, by now, starting to wear on me, and I began to wish he would go away. I thought of the cabdriver who had driven me home from the Folk Art Museum — hey, I’m African just like you. Kenneth was making a similar claim.
The repetition of this stance can become tiresome, but Cole writes compellingly about his narrator’s self-assured cosmopolitanism. Anger may “well up” in Julius but the language employed to describe this anger remains grounded and thoughtful. Indeed, there seems to be little derision, in both quotations, of those who would lay claim on Cole’s protagonist, despite his objections. The narrator may be a man apart in many regards, but the citizen-of-the-world philosophy in Open City is not shrill or dismissive.
The most interesting moments of cosmopolitanism arise during Julius’s conversations with Farooq, a Moroccan living in Brussles. Julius is initially intrigued by the critical theory–loving shopkeeper, but he soon becomes wary of his comrade’s mild sectarianism. Farooq’s discussion of Middle East geopolitics prompts the following reflection by Julius:
I wanted to take him to task for attaching a religious ideal when his own central ideal was religious, but the skein of argument was beginning to feel like futility piled on futility; it was better to save my breath. So, instead, I asked him to tell me about his family in Tetouan, and what life was like growing up there.
On one hand, Julius does not rehearse his worldliness with arguments that run counter to Farooq’s beliefs, even though, as he claims in the same paragraph, his anti-racism is prerational, almost coterminous with his own identity. Rather, by encouraging the shopkeeper to narrate the scenes of his provincial past, he meets Farooq on his own ground. However, Cole’s reliance on cliched language here — “take him to task,” “save my breath” — while relatively rare in the novel as a whole, indicates that the frequent theses on the topic are, at times, exhausting.
At this point, it is worth comparing Cole to another noted cosmopolitain writer: W.G. Sebald. Cole himself acknowledges Sebald’s influence and, writing in The Guardian, gushes (as he should) over The Rings of Saturn: “Formally dexterous, fearlessly written . . . and unremittingly arcane; by the end I was in tears.” Open City mimics many of Sebald’s novels in its meandering structure and its reliance on a solitary, scholarly narrator. Both authors tend to excavate the landscapes and cityscapes through which they wander in order to reveal unknown histories and hidden cruelties. Cole recalls Sebald, for example, when his narrator explains that today’s Lower East Side was once a burial ground for African slaves in 17th-century New York. Both convey the sense that the places we encounter and experience are composites and never independent of their histories. These similarities to Sebald, both stylistic and thematic, run deep in Open City.
At the same time, however, the differences between the two are illuminating. They reveal worldviews that diverge when the topic of the self, and its physical relations with others, arises. Sensuality is far more present in Open City than in the cold, Teutonic world of Sebald. For instance, Cole’s novel presents violence as something immanent and even personal. Consider the mugging of Julius on an uptown block near his apartment:
I fell to the ground. I don’t recall if I cried out, or if opening my mouth I was unable to make a sound. They began to kick me all over — shins, back, arms — a quick, preplanned choreography. I shouted, begging them to stop, conscious of a man on the ground being beaten. Then I lost the will to speak and took the blows in silence.
The language is lucid, even languid, but the narrator does not contemplate this violence in the abstract, nor is he concerned with violence on a grand-historical scale. Violence is personal and visceral. Compare this approach with the opening pages of Austerlitz: Sebald describes the Centraal Station in Antwerp as a monument to 19th-century Belgian “colonial enterprises, when deals of hugh proportions were done on the raw-materials markets and capital exchanges of Brussels.” Passages as this subtly connect the accomplishments of the West to the misery of the colonized subject. Sebald’s contemplation of violence remains oblique, drawn from Walter Benjamin’s argument that there is no document of civilization which is not also a document of barbarism. It seems difficult to recall any instance of personal, physical violence enacted upon the narrators of Sebald’s novels.
Comfort with sensuality exposes another noticeable disconnection between Cole and Sebald. Sexual relationships exist in Open City whereas the Sebaldian universe remains cold, and uncomfortable with the concept. Compare the following two scenes, the first from Cole, the second from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:
In the faux Louis XV bedroom, her shyness dissolved . . . Then we both went down together, by the side of the Baroque bed, both pushed up against its satin shams, and I pulled the linen skirt upward to her waist.
A couple lay down there, in the bottom of the pit, as I thought: a man stretched full length over another body of which nothing was visible except the legs, spread and angled. In the startled moment when that image went through me, which lasted an eternity, it seemed as if the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged.
The language and setting in both passages underscore the two divergent approaches (comfort levels?) with physicality and sexuality. Cole, for instance, emphasizes the communal — see the repetition of “both.” The lush, quasi-pornographic setting, with its Baroque bed, satin, and linen, accentuates the tactile experience. Contra Cole, Sebald remains distant; he is a voyeur observing some seemingly alien action in a “pit.” The couple, in fact, are reduced to a pair of legs. By disassociating himself from tactile experiences, Sebald suggests that there is something unnatural in our physical relations with others; Cole, although he presents his protagonist as solitary, implies that we cannot sever contact with others, that to do so would be alien. In fact, Julius’s physical relations with others underscore Cole’s larger point that we inhabit a communal world.
Not without its flaws, Open City presents a beautiful, ranging narrative of the increasingly interconnected urban and international spaces we inhabit. Cole may be repetitive in his major themes, but he tempers these philosophical and political stances with a subtle humanity, and he writes with a thoughtful and sensual sensibility. The voice that animates Open City remains aware of its influences while searching for new ground to explore.
Thomas Lewek lives in New York and works in publishing.