That I embarked on this book was hardly serendipitous – ever since it came out, critics have been hailing it as a Sebaldian work, and it has found its way on all magazines, blogs which even remotely address Sebald and his fans.
I picked it up, hoping it was not an attempt to follow Sebald’s footsteps – there could be nothing exciting about sounding like someone else. In the initial pages itself, Teju Cole is quick to show us that though his narrator goes on long walks, it is in his own city (New York); his meditations on this walk do not transcend the border of time and are often impersonal observations of surrounding life. Contrast that to Sebald’s journeys through space and time – he rarely lived in the present, almost always wrote about some unknown village or coastal town far away, and his every reflection seemed to emerge from or be part of his personal melancholia.
Standing outside of this shadow then, Open City is a great work. The narrator, Julius is a half Nigerian-half German man who is in his final year of Psychiatry fellowship. For a psychiatry student, he is a very detached observer, one who almost never tries to enter a person’s head or understand her motives. He instead has experiences which he narrates (mostly without adding his own judgement). The title Open City could as much apply to the city of New York which sees so many amalgamations in it, as it could to the narrator’s mind, which allows experiences to drop in one over another, without ever forming decisive opinions.
Some of these observations take place in Brussels: a large part of his Brussels experiences are with a young guy called Farooq who takes care of an internet cafe. During his interactions with Farooq, you can often see Julius swinging between sometimes feeling sympathetic towards him, and at other times feeling annoyed with Farooq’s unjust, rhetoric anger. He is impressed with Farroq’s reading, knowledge, and soon becomes bored of the excessive bookishness.
At several points the idea of racial identity enters these observations. Julius seems especially averse to belong to a ‘group’, and seems to hold his African past at bay. He avoids people who begin a kinship with him only because he is African, and yet when he sees a couple of Africans young guys in a deserted park, his reaction is one of relief. This response seems to be borne out of the same kinship which he shrugs off.
In the entire narrative, one place where Julius comes face to face with his own bestiality has been handled with most poise – something so momentous handled with so little drama. (The ensuing parts give out some details of the plot – so if you have not read the book, you may want to skip this) Here a woman tells Julius how he had raped her long ago, when they were both in Nigeria. How the incident was so insignificant for him that he did not even remember it, and yet how much it had changed her life. She describes the evening with some details, describes how she still finds him the same careless, insensitive man.
Julius offers no thoughts on this encounter – he does not even admit to being ashamed or feeling belittled. You turn the page and he has already moved on to talking about something else. It almost feels like it was another story which he had been told, where he was only an impassioned observer like everything else that went before. He displays more emotion for forgetting his ATM pin. It looks Cole is trying to push the envelope on the level of alienation modern cities instill.