Open City, By Teju Cole
Doctor without frontiers
Sunday 31 July 2011
There's an early hint of what's to come in this extraordinary debut when the narrator listens to a symphony that follows its composer "through drunkenness, longing, bombast, youth (with its fading) and beauty (with its fading)."
Julius, a thirty-something Nigerian psychiatrist, wanders Manhattan, attuned to the city yet isolated. He resists easy intimacy but occasionally reaches out to strangers and, although he does so frequently, it's always a surprise to hear him call a fellow African "brother". His schizophrenic patients' worlds are "remarkably consistent", but his own inconsistencies make him a convincing, compelling protagonist.
The only child of a dead father and an estranged mother, Julius travels to Brussels to search for his grandmother. "I treasured the silence," he says of a childhood afternoon they shared, but he can't find her in a city fraught with racial and religious tension, crackling with "palpable psychological pressure". He talks literary theory with angry young Muslims, enjoys a rainy afternoon rendezvous with a grey-haired woman, and departs not knowing if his grandmother is dead or alive. Belgium was the theatre for "Europe's fatal tussles" and its capital is the open city through which that conflict flows.
Violent legacies linger in New York, too. Julius looks beyond the Statue of Liberty's "fluorescent green fleck against the sky" to Ellis Island, and notes that African immigrants met "rougher ports of entry". This phrase acquires crude connotations after a shocking accusation is levelled against him near the novel's conclusion. Words and motifs echo, connections become apparent in retrospect and we re-read in an entirely new light.
Open City exhibits the focus, timelessness and unobtrusive wit that its narrator admires in great painting. An exhilarating post-melting-pot novel, it delves into unexcavated histories, erasures and the bones beneath us. It marvels at the stories we contain, capturing new realities where identity is a fluid mix of inheritance, memory and fiction. A hopeful, affirming book, it depicts the world's vastness and reminds us that we all have a place.
"Atrocity is nothing new," says Julius. "The only difference is that in our time it is uniquely well-organised." With breathtaking intelligence and originality, Teju Cole organises his novel to push against formal and national boundaries. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Open City successfully reckons with its impact and points the way ahead.
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