by Teju Cole
The City as Palimpsest
A review by Laird Hunt
Teju Cole's second novel builds on the promise of his first (Every Day is for the Thief, Cassava Republic, 2007). Here, as in his elegant debut, which was set largely in Lagos, Nigeria, a circumspect walker explores both the visible and invisible aspects of the cities he is drawn to. The scale of Open City, which moves from New York to Brussels to Lagos (and a Nigerian military boarding school), is greater than its more compressed predecessor though, and the central questions of what it means to live strung between past and present, geography and desire, the known and the unknowable are more richly and complicatedly posed.
Julius, the narrator, is a Nigerian-German psychiatrist finishing his residency in New York. In his spare time, he walks the city. Sometimes he visits an old Japanese-American professor, or meets with friends, or chats with a fellow immigrant cab driver, but mostly he is alone and in motion. Or, rather, Julius is alone and in the curious non-motion of the reflective wanderer, whose wide-ranging thoughts, deepened and developed after the fact, would seem to undercut any reasonable ambulation. So it is that a walk past Trinity Church in lower Manhattan leads to an inventory of the famous people interned there and, later, a visit to "ground zero" prompts a meditation on the long history of violence on that ground and the observation that the events of September 11 were not the site's first obliteration: "And, before that? What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Julius is more interesting, and Cole more original, in his observations that look away from heavily historicized and mediatized events and locales. What he has to say about Manhattan and its current denizens, for example, is often extraordinary:
This strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them.
What makes this and the many other compound observations found throughout the book work so effectively is Cole's ability to pay his thought forward, often to considerable length, without letting go of the light, almost delicate touch that infuses it. Julius doesn't belabor his observations, he patiently invites them to unfurl:
Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people's stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.
The past, which serves as both hook to pull Julius back and goad to move him forward, is kept safely at bay during Julius' mental and physical wanderings. This suits Julius, who feels equally drawn to his memories and vaguely repelled by them, just fine. His peculiar dilemma, one shared in various ways by the immigrants and exiles that everywhere surround him, is that in the meantime the present sits on its own troubling set of tenterhooks. His uneasiness is amplified by the parts of his past, fully embodied as it turns out in his present, that he is unable or unwilling to confront.
Cole's writing, it has to be said, is profoundly influenced by the work of W. G. Sebald. Cole seems quite comfortable in acknowledging the debt, and even if he here forgoes the grainy uncaptioned photographs he used in Every Day is for the Thief, he nevertheless includes references to Sebald's favorite themes -- emigrants, the Congo, traces of atrocity reaching deep into the past, doppelgangers, paintings and photographs that replace actual memories, easily and constantly available erudition, etc. -- all the way through Open City. I draw attention to this not as a reproach, but because unlike the flood of merely Sebaldesque works currently in circulation, Cole's is authentically Sebaldian -- and, because the influence has been so powerfully and openly metabolized, very much his own.
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