New York City has always been and will never cease to be a beguiling temptress, tantalising all kinds of artists – artists who dwell in one of its many cavities, those who have at sometime in their lives stepped foot on that hallowed city’s concrete, as well as those who will never physically come within a mile of its precincts. Teju Cole’s novel Open City (Random House USA: ISBN 9781400068098, 259 pages) raises, by several notches, New York’s status as one of the most enduring muses of artists.
Open City is a patchwork of wondrous explorations into diverse human experiences, held together by and beautifully presented in measured and lucid language. Set mostly in 2007, the narrative is the voice of Julius, a young Nigerian-German medical school graduate and psychiatry resident with the “costume and degree to prove it”; he is also a New York City dweller.
Julius is a young man struggling to find his way in the world. He is well versed in classical music, European history, philosophy and psychiatry. Despite his seeming confidence and rich cultural knowledge, he is still very much a soul at sea. The novel is filled with instances of Julius struggling to find himself in others, consciously and unconsciously seeking kinship because he is actually a lonely soul. His solitude has been accentuated by the death of his father, a Nigerian engineer who passed away when Julius was only eight, coupled with his estrangement from his German-Belgian mother at the age of seventeen just before he left Nigeria for the United States. Born and bred in Lagos, Julius emigrated to New York City for further education, and above all, to get away from his mother, to experience life on his own terms. The attentive reader quickly notes in the opening pages Julius’s assessment that “Walking through the busy parts of town, meant I laid eyes on more people, hundreds more, thousands even, than I was accustomed to seeing in the course of a day, but the impress of these countless faces did nothing to assuage my feelings of isolation; if anything, it intensified them.” Julius evokes the image of the lone, male figure in Salvatore Dali’s painting Paranoical-Astral Image – a lonely suit-wearing sophisticate who, despite the company around him, is more distant than involved in his environment because he is keener to observe than to participate. The quest to find himself, which leads him to form curious associations and to wander through New York and Brussels, throws up intriguing interactions which are capable of life-altering ideas and moments for many a discerning reader.
Race and Racism, slavery, corporate immorality during the slave trade, homosexuality, cultural confusion of a “half-caste” youth, the Middle East crisis, post 9/11 America, mental illness, class clashes in post-colonial Nigeria, the loneliness and madness of city life, failed romance, the Liberian civil war, classical music – all, and more, find a place in the novel. Racism of the funniest kind rears its head consistently in the novel and emanates from the unlikeliest of sources. At an empty subway station during one of his walks through the city, Julius comes upon a ten year old boy and his thirteen year old sister, escorted by inattentive parents. Both kids enthusiastically flash him gangster signs and curiously inquire from him if he is a gangster. They declare gleefully that because he is black, he must be a gangster – a bleak commentary on the future of America’s race relations. After attending a classical music performance, Julius is the recipient of curious glances from white concert goers at the Carnegie Hall, inquiring eyes seem to demand to know, “What’s a black man doing around here?” In the year 2007, I hasten to add. Julius’s take on racism in America – “The racist structure of this country is crazy-making.”
Cole provides fresh insights into diverse subjects through the eyes and lives of characters in the novel who are simply as intriguing as their interactions with Julius. Professor Saito is the first major character Julius introduces to the reader. Saito is an intelligent, terminally ill octogenarian English Literature professor seemingly of Polynesian origins. Saito obtained his doctorate in the subject from Cambridge University but despite his erudition, he was made to undergo internment with his family upon his return to the United States during the Second World War – one of least glorious moments in the history of America’s race relations. Julius regards Saito as a father figure, respecting and accepting his homosexuality. The prospect of a man such as Saito from such a strongly patriarchal culture knowing of his sexual orientation at the age of three tested my gullibility for intelligent, well-executed writing and it did stretch credulity somewhat. However, all that doubt was dulled by the deeply touching non-sexual fondness they share for each other.
Another character who is more than likely to have an unshakeable grip on any reader is Saidu, a Liberian youth and illegal immigrant to the United States whom Julius meets at a detention facility in Queens. Saidu’s wartime experiences are starkly depicted such that the depressing images are left ingrained in the mind. Saidu fled to Guinea, after he escaped from a life of forced labour at a rubber plantation controlled by soldiers loyal to Charles Taylor. ECOMOG soldiers from Nigeria rescued him after his escape, fed him and helped to transport him to the Guinean border – because he pretended to be retarded. One is left with the inevitable question – perhaps retardation is a necessary survival tool for war, possessed to varying degrees by warring factions, warlords and all other parties involved in armed conflict. To what else but retardation can one possibly ascribe the murder of innocents such as Saidu’s mother and sister who were killed for nothing by soldiers loyal to Taylor’s men? Of Julius’s several chance encounters, that with Saidu is probably the most memorable.
Julius also introduces the reader to some of his patients, using the appropriate pseudonyms V., M., and Mr. F to “mask” their identities. Their troubled lives and alternate realities stir up questions of the limits and capabilities of the human mind to accept the realities of those around us. Julius discusses them with a mixture of warmth, understanding and derisiveness. His attitude to them is summed up in his declaration that “There is always a fund of humorous tales from the horror of mental illness.”
Other standout characters are Dr. Annette Malloite, a Belgian-American Julius meets on board a flight to Brussels and Farouq, an underemployed Moroccan political philosopher who works as an internet and telephone receptionist at a cybercafé in Brussels. Dr. Malloite states one truth with which I have no quarrel whatsoever – “Well, I know a great many Nigerians, and I really should tell you this, many of them are arrogant.” Anyone who has had the dubious fortune of engaging a Nigerian in an argument over politics, or intellectual subjects, or religion, or homosexuality, will gladly confirm that truth. Julius puts it better when he responds to Dr. Malloite’s ensuing apology by saying “We think of ourselves as the Japanese of Africa, without the technological brilliance;” another incontrovertible truth, at least in the year 2012. Farouq also expresses some truths about various subjects, the most poignant of which is his succinct summation of the relationship between the United States on one hand and the Arab and Muslim World on the other in the era of George W. Bush – “For us, America is a version of Al-Qaeda.” Arab-Muslim perception of America has not been so sharply defined in recent fiction.
The runaway topmost anecdote in the novel by my estimation is Julius’s harassment as a teenager by Second-class Warrant Officer Musibau, the “music teacher” at the Nigerian Military School, Zaria. Musibau is a disgruntled, elderly man who is stuck at a dead-end military career and he has much younger men as his superiors because he is not as educated as they are. A teenage Julius had the ill luck of picking up an apparently discarded copy of the Daily Concord, a popular newspaper at the time, from a school bench; the newspaper turned out to be the music teacher’s. Musibau – popularly called “Hitler” by his students, behind his back – seized the opportunity to strike one back at the privileged class by exacting a quite common punishment in Nigerian schools on the “half-Nigerian…summer trips, domestic staff” enjoying spoilt brat who “stole” his newspaper – he bitterly administered twelve strokes of the cane. Julius came away from the episode with several welts on his buttocks, notoriety for his toughness because he did not cry and almost inevitably, the sobriquet – Daily Concord. For this writer who was given admission into the Military School at about the same time as Julius but who narrowly escaped being bundled off to that same school due to maternal opposition, it particularly struck a chord and roused the joyful cry, “There but for the grace of God go I!” The underlying fact is that in the course of everyday life, very few Nigerians have not had a brush with brutalisation by members of the nation’s armed forces. During military rule in the 1980s, Julius’s experience was routine in the country.
The most complex relationship in the novel is that between Moji Kasali and Julius; their relationship is even more complex than that between Julius and Nadège, his girlfriend. Moji, the older sister of an acquaintance of Julius’s at the Military School, is a lady with whom he had a – well, to put it in a way that does not ruin the surprise for anyone who has not read it – disagreeable intimate encounter when he was fourteen and she was a year older. Eighteen years later, they meet in New York City and they have a few social meetings. At a party organised by her boyfriend, Moji confronts him with her eighteen-year old disgruntlement. Cole skilfully builds their relationship without any hint of a kink (pun intended) in their relationship. Julius’s reaction to her challenge caused one to arrive at the suspicion that some parts of the novel are actually exercises in showing off. When a lady accuses a man of being the cause of eighteen years of mental and psychological wounds, it seems rather odd that his mind goes into instant overdrive, mentally contemplating right in front of her Camus’s journals on Nietzsche and Gaius Mucius Cordus Scaevola, albeit internally. “How could this have been so insignificant to me for so long and so important to her?” seems a more likely natural gut response, not instant mental disquisitions about the nature of pain with respect to Nietzsche and Gaius. Another possible loophole in their relationship is the fact that Cole has not exactly disclosed who is older between Julius and Moji. In chapter twelve when Julius meets her again for the first time after eighteen years, he explains that she perhaps thought of him back in 1989 as “the brother’s friend, the sophisticated aje-butter, a self-confident older teen.” During the denouement in chapter twenty, Moji says she is older. A reader may be left wondering if this was deliberate on the part of the author or simply oversight.
Open City is noticeably devoid of references to the rich cultural life of 1980s Lagos. It is all well and good that Julius can recognise every note from Mahler, Chopin and Shostakovich symphonies, but a good number of Lagosians who grew up in the city in the 1980s will be compelled to ask, “But where are the Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade and Commander Ebenezer Obey “symphonies”? While growing up in Lagos, did Julius by any chance not encounter Nigerian cultural icons apart from the blind bard – if not in person, at least through their works?” (Although the blind bard is not named, there is the strong suspicion that he is the late Kokoro, a popular itinerant performer who was a regular fixture at Lagos bus stops and markets.) Indeed, despite his exposition on Yoruba creation mythology, Julius is mostly divorced from his Nigerian/Yoruba roots – he never uses his Yoruba name “Olatunbosun” in everyday life because it “confirmed me in not being fully Nigerian.” However, it is rather grave injustice that cultural figures whose vital contributions reflected and shaped life in the city at the time find no place in the novel. How Julius could have avoided these cultural experiences despite attending teenage parties and attending primary school in Lagos boggles the mind. Surely, Michael Jackson could not have been the only pop music figure of the day that attracted the attention of young Lagosians; Lagos had a good number of pop idols in the 1980s.
Open City is a brilliant, stimulating philosophy tome masqueraded as fiction. It is no book for the dilettante. A lot happens in just a paragraph, if one peers and ponders carefully enough – it is not a book to be read in a hurry. Nuggets of wisdom leap off the pages at almost regular intervals. Teju Cole has given a worldly-wise tone to an emerging generation of Nigerian authors who are much more adventurous than the generations of writers that preceded it, a generation that is bolder and unafraid to explore other cultures. Open City shall occupy a pride of place in my bookshelf, proudly displayed at a vantage position to be appreciated for the gem it truly is.
Bolaji Olatunde is the author of the novel Straw Dogs. Some of his work can be found at his blog http://bolajiolatunde.blogspot.com/