Saturday, February 25, 2012

'Open City' by Teju Cole

W.G. Sebald's death in a car crash in 2001 was a great loss to literature; he was in rich form, and we could have expected several really fine books in the years to come. We could hardly, however, expected that a literary descendant would have appeared in 2011 in the form of a part-Nigerian 'professional historian of Netherlandish art' writing about the perambulations of a part-Nigerian psychiatric doctor as he is wandering around the island of Manhattan.

But Sebald is the influence that Teju Cole's first novel Open City inevitably evokes. It's not that Cole doesn't have his own voice (through his narrator Julius) or that his book isn't an achieved work of art in its own right. It's just that some elements are inescapably 'Sebaldian': the melchancholy shimmer of its beautiful prose, the apparently freewheeling associations in the mind of the narrator, the fascination with loss and the layerings of personal, cultural and architectural history. 'Novel' also seems a crude label, as it does for The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. And the narrator himself is a tricky figure - in Sebald, often slipping behind veils of irony, in Open City an altogether more ambiguous character than his highly-educated surface at first suggests.

Open City has a broad canvas, despite its relatively modest length: ranging across New York, it also extends to Brussels and Nigeria, and - especially - it reaches down into histories of many kinds. Those histories may be cultural (the suppression of 9/11, the African Burial Ground near Wall Street, Ellis Island) or personal (Julius's forgotten childhood German, boarding school in Nigeria, the after-effects of a recently failed relationship). It is also terrific on the great city itself, evoking its neighbourhoods and changing atmospheres memorably.

As with Sebald, there is little overt plot here, but there is a story all right, and its climax is close to the end of the book when Julius has a shocking conversation with a childhood friend, not long after he is beaten up by teenage muggers. 

Darker realities are never far from the urbane surface of the narrative. In the final chapter, Julius attends a performance of Mahler's Das Leid von der Erde at the Carnegie Hall given by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. At this, the zenith of Western culture, Julius is hyperconscious of his colour in the 'all-white space'. His awareness of and knowledge about the piece is far beyond 95% of such an audience. When the concert is over, he leaves the Hall via an emergency exit. The door slams shut and he is marooned on a flimsy fire escape in 'a situation of unimprovable comedy' - except that suddenly, and only just in time, he realises he is in mortal danger, and might have plunged into nothingness.  This is just one in a series of brilliant scenes, some of them mere flashes, or 'small fates' as he calls his Lagos tweets.

Julius is both superbly observant and disastrously blind, capable of great tenderness (such as in his concern for an elderly gay Japanese professor near the end of his life) but also of moral and emotional cowardice.  He is a compelling narrator and this is a really fine book.

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