Complex and beautifully written

2012-03-21 00:00

JULIUS, the narrator of this novel, is a Nigerian-German postgraduate student in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship in New York City. He develops the habit of taking solitary walks through the streets of Manhattan, that are “a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work”. These long walks also intensify his sense of isolation, as he nurses the pain of a recent break-up with his girlfriend.

The concept of the open city of the title is used both metaphorically and ironically. New York is the open city of Julius’s wanderings and wonderings. As he traverses the city streets, he also reflects on the layered history of post-9/11 New York that is revealed (or concealed) by city landmarks (even the missing ones).

Julius also travels to Brussels, ostensibly to seek out his grandmother. Declared an “open city” when the Nazis invaded Belgium during World War 2, Brussels was demilitarised and not defended in exchange for gaining immunity from bombardment or attack. As Julius notes “negotiation with the invading powers” spared the houses, bridges and cathedrals of Brussels from probable destruction.

Negotiating with invaders evokes a sense of unease, and uneasiness pervades the pages of this book. The precision of Julius’s descriptions of city streets, paintings, migrating birds in the skies above New York, the Hudson River, music, memories of his childhood in Nigeria and encounters with people whom he meets, is blurred by the underlying sense of disquiet.

Striving to retain a kind of neutrality, Julius is an articulate and seemingly astute narrator. The book is filtered through his consciousness, but to discuss his character here would spoil the ex­perience of reading this nuanced and wide-ranging novel by the Nigerian-born writer, art historian and street photographer, Teju Cole.

At the same time as bringing the awareness of an outsider to aspects of the city, Julius also has an urban insider’s intimacy with the art, music and literature of the elite. Paradoxically, he feels both completely at home and profoundly alienated. Reading this complex and beautifully written book, enables one to contemplate these and other paradoxes — wandering may be tightly regulated, and even open cities may be subjected to attack.

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