Opening Teju Cole’s Open City
I have always avoided reading this book because of the aloofness with which I often view African writers in the diaspora. This might be due to my silent contempt for what their works often portray about Africa. Their stories are replete with the general stereotypes with which the western world views the continent. They arouse sympathy rather than help for the continent and compact the complex issues of the land into simple, wrong paradigms which are easy to understand but not really valid. This, I believe is a limiting factor for African literature and creative writing in general.
Yet I found myself reading this book, albeit reluctantly when a friend sent me a copy and suggested that I review it. After reading the synopsis and the first chapter, I changed my mind instantly. Open City began to look like something different. Throughout its 278 pages, the novel resonates with ambiguities. It brings forth complex issues in the society and dissects them profoundly. It is not a novel about Africa, yet Africans can identify with it. It is a novel without a plot or a storyline yet everyone finds his own story in it. It is a story of openness, of issues and events that transcend race, and border. Yet it is a story with an African origin because it also tells the African story. It is a story of endless reflections on the collective story from a personal perspective. It is a story in which culture roams freely without limit and identity becomes uncertain.
Open city follows the musings of Julius, a young medical student studying psychiatry in Harlem, New York. He is of mixed parentage; a Nigerian father and a German mother. At the beginning of the Novel, Julius’s Open city is New York, a city of diverse cultures and clash of identities. It is a city where cultures melt into one another and yet each retains its identity. It is a city full of different people from diverse backgrounds brought together by mutual need for life. It is in New York that he takes his evening walks in which he comes into contact with the complexities of existence. At a time when his relationship with his girlfriend is shattering, he takes on the job of an observer. Julius synthesizes ideology from the experiences of people he comes across; his patients, his neighbors, the people he comes across on his walks, people he comes across at events. He meets a diverse variety of people, who tell him their stories in startling details. The author has an uncanny gift for portraying scenes and landscapes, giving the narrator a potent power of observation. His narration is sometimes shaped by the stories of characters he comes across; the former professor suffering from cancer, Kenneth, the black guard that saw him at the museum but he couldn’t recognize days later, Moji, a woman he knew as a child in Nigeria but had chosen to forget. Throughout the book, he thinks about his pleasant obsession with classical music. He reflects on his childhood in Nigeria and his relationship with his parents and grandmother. He had become estranged from his mother after his father’s death due to a clash of opinions. His mother had always been troubled by a haunting past and the relationship between mother and son had been turbulent. Now as an adult, he remembers what he had known of her tragedy. She had been born in 1945, into the intense suffering and destruction that pervaded Germany at the close of the Second World War. Her father, his grandfather had been captured by the soviets, who had committed grievous atrocities, perhaps as an act of retribution for the excesses of the Nazis. The rape of German women in Berlin by soldiers of the Red army was so intense and extensive that Julius believes his grandmother must have been a victim. He also remembers his time at the Nigerian military school, giving us a glimpse into life in a Nigerian boarding school.
Brussels, the capital of Belgium is also his open city. It is the city where he travels to in search of answers to his past and origin. It is a city with its own historical complexities, struggling to come to terms with increasing heterogeneity through immigration. He visits his grandmother, has sex with a middle-aged Czech woman and interacts with some weird characters. One of his most profound experiences in Brussels is with a young Palestinian called Farouq, in which several issues pertaining to the Middle East, Islam and religion are brought to the fore. Perhaps, the major theme of the book is embodied in his adventure in Brussels.
Open city is also a story of lost identities; of people with multiple nationalities but no home. In their state of internal confusion, they seek for something familiar to hold on to, to identify with. An example is the taxi driver of African origin who was offended that Julius did not respond well enough to his greeting.
They also seek a place to belong to. They often come across people with similar backgrounds and feel a kind of kinship with them, but only for a while. In a city full of many people of diverse races and nationalities, they are always not alone yet they are lonely as Julius feels when he goes to the cinema to watch the movie ‘The last King of Scotland’. The movie was about Idi Amin, the late dictator of Uganda. Julius also spends a lot of time ruminating about several life issues. He thinks about death, slavery, racism, and the meaning of reality, identity and nationality.
Open city is a story with many stories. It is an open story from which the reader forms his own story. The story explores many social issues and reflects on many tragic events of historical significance; the Dutch massacre of Native Americans in the 17th century, the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. His fascination with the building where former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak once lived has made the book seem more important after Mubarak was overthrown in a revolution, five months after it was released.
In this book, Teju Cole has been able to make the kind of borderless connections between lives in different parts of the world that many intellectuals have long been craving to see. It is no surprise that it has been well received in the United States, which has been relatively cold to great Nigerian books compared to the United Kingdom. This serves to support the idea that Americans are more cosmopolitan in nature than other nationalities. The author avoids revealing the true character of the narrator in a way that the reader is left guessing. This, I believe is both a flaw and a strength for the book because the reader is given the freedom to make out what he wants from the story. In the end, it is the reader’s choice to extract his own meaning and lessons from the numerous the author presented.