Open City

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Open City

Teju Cole

Faber and Faber

 

The narrator in Open City is the figure of the flâneur, almost tragically endowed with a sensibility to read the various narratives of the city (New York, in this case) and its inhabitants. Skilfully, and beautifully, he excavates the stories they contain, elide, cover over, ignore or obfuscate. His position is most certainly post-colonial, himself a Nigerian immigrant, and his sympathies concertedly with those dispossessed, marginalised and hard-up individuals affected, at some point in their lives, by racial prejudice.

Open City recalls the best of W.G Sebald, with its narrative taking a keen interest in urban environments, interweaving them with personal and social history and uncanny explorations of memory. Like Sebald’s narrators, Open City’s Julius is an intellectual, not quite an academic in this case, but certainly well read; Julius recounts that he “flitted from book to book: Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Last Friend, among others.”

Cole’s flâneur is intriguing in that his perspective is at a double remove from that which he interprets, first facing the by now familiar capitalist alienation, as well as the burden of race which renders him other. He walks around New York, and the other locales in the book’s domain, at once at home and a stranger; he is always alive to an oscillating sense of place, each evening looking out of the window

“hoping to see the miracle of natural immigration. Each time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and I imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove.”

As he recounts anecdotes from his many interlocutors, Julius is inclined to reflect on the multiplicity of the narratives they contain; not only the story he is told, or what is superficially visible, but all that is contingent, constituent, to the present picture.

On a plane from New York to Brussels, Julius meets a lady in the seat next to him, Dr. Mailotte, a Belgian in her senior years. She tells him of her friend, a Baron, whose ancestor had “built” the city of Heliopolis, in Egypt, during Belgian colonial involvement there. She quickly goes on to tell of the Baron’s kidnapping in the 1970s, how his captors had demanded millions from the family, and had cut off their hostage’s finger and mailed it to his relatives to show they meant business. Reflecting on his conversation, thinking of Heliopolis, Julian thinks “about the numberless dead, in forgotten cities, necropoli, catacombs.” His response to the doctor’s suggestion of violence and casual treatment of colonial occupation is an attempt to exhume the “numberless dead” on top of which the city lies; the indelible history of colonial violence under erasure, elided by Dr. Mailotte’s account.

Cole and his narrator are sensitive as well to redeeming the colonial history of New York. Pondering Ground Zero, Julius recalls:

“Before the towers had gone up, there had been a bustling network of little streets traversing this part of town…. all of them had been obliterated in the 1960s to make way for the World Trade Center buildings, and all were forgotten now. Gone, too, was the old Washington Market, the active piers, the fishwives, and the Christian Syrian enclave that was established here in the late 1800s…. And before that? What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten.”

Cole’s prose is often straightforward, though at times it gives way to moments of extreme lucidity and frisson; he is able to reveal to the reader instances where the clarity of insights far exceeds the details which produce them, like a brilliant light emergent from the fog. In a particularly incisive passage, Julius muses on the ground beneath his feet:

“This is the 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. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused.”

This is resonant with the ideas that Cole explores in Open City, the covering up and writing over of the subjective violence which sustains and constitutes the normal condition of life; the dirty secrets of a colonial past and a still racialised present, swept under the rug to perpetuate our insistence on a post-racial America and the idyllic “end of history”.

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