by Teju Cole
"For Paracelsus, the light of nature functioned intuitively, but it was also sharpened by experience. . . it informed us what the inner reality of a thing was by means of its form, so that the appearance of a man gave some valid reflection of the person he really was." (p 237)
“To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.” ― Teju Cole, Open City
Some books have opening lines that are immediately moving for the reader. This is one of those books. This uncommon novel begins with the narrator commenting on on his daily walks: "And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall. . . "
While this line may seem unassuming, and the whole book contains vignettes that, taken individually, may seem unassuming, the entirety of this memoir-like narrative is powerful indeed. What is it that makes the individual parts come together in such a fashion that they had such an impact on this reader?
There are two parts containing short chapters. In Part One the story follows the main character, Julius, who is a Nigerian doctor doing his psychiatric residency in New York City. Julius takes up walking as a way to diminish the pressures of his job working with his patients. Julius even uses the walks to clear his mind of personal matters, such as a recent breakup with his girlfriend, Nadege. Throughout the novel, the narration of the story does not include any dialogue among the characters, but is told in exposition - in short chapters. He is an observer of humanity and as he walks he shares his experiences in a somewhat random manner. What we learn from this is not just the experiences but his ruminations on history, literature, art, and eventually his own family. He starts to recognize what a true melting pot New York is as far as cultures and ethnicities are concerned. In the face of living in such a diverse city, however, Julius also notices that stark separation that still draws an imaginary line segregating one ethnic group from another.
As Julius walks, he also thinks back to his childhood in Nigeria. His father died when Julius was 14. He is now estranged from his mother. while his father was of Nigerian descent, Julius's mother is white and of German descent, making Julius a mixed race. Due to his mixed race, and light colored skin, Julius feels out of place, even in the worlds where he belongs. As he wanders around the city, black people seem to connect with him, recognizing his African roots.
One of his run-ins with someone he grew up with in Nigeria even reveals that Julius raped her. Subsequently, Julius blocked out the memory of this event and never reveals if he recalls it when his Moji tells him what he did to her.
Near the end of Part One of the novel Julius visits Brussels. He is only just visiting Brussels, but it has a similar impact on him as Manhattan. He is impressed by the feeling of history from the ancient buildings, since Brussels was an "Open City" in WWII and was thus exempt from bombing. But beyond the history and his own internal meditations he feels just as impermanent in Brussels as he had in New York. It was like he being awestruck by it for the first time despite being world-weary restless. He is a perpetual tourist, stopping in his steps to gawk, never in a hurry but always moving somewhere—if not forward or backward, still somewhere.
By the end of the novel, Julius finishes his residency and moves into private practice. It seems as if he has come to terms with some of the events in his life. On the other hand, he never fully addresses some of the other issues to reveal to the reader as to whether the issues are ongoing or resolved. The lack of resolution did not diminish the cumulative power of the stories shared by the narrator.
Open City is the debut novel by author Teju Cole. the story of narrator Julius’ wandering through New York, and, briefly, Brussels. It gains power and presence through his contemplation of immigration and nationality in the U.S., his fleetingly depicted but often strong friendships, the way we manufacture brotherhood as a way to both unite and distance ourselves from humanity.