AUGUST 7, 2014
IF YOU DON’T enjoy the company of Teju Cole’s perpetually adrift narrators, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy Open City (2011) or this year’s book, Every Day Is for the Thief. (The author published another version in Nigeria in 2007.) The narrator of Open City is Julius, a young West African wandering the streets of New York City and Brussels; in Every Day, he is an unnamed traveler crisscrossing Lagos. The reader who enjoys a carefully constructed plot may also find these episodic structures devoid of purpose. Where is the narrative arc, such a reader may ask; what exactly is it that Julius searches for? What is he doing, besides remembering stuff, as he walks in New York and Brussels? And why does that other fellow spend so much time in Lagos if the city annoys him so much?
But, while his books may lack conventional plots, Cole’s characters are nevertheless driven by a chain of events, and his characters, if aimless, come fully equipped with histories. Julius, the narrator of Open City, is half-Nigerian, half-German while the narrator of Every Day is a Nigerian living in the United States. Both men are in their early thirties, with highbrow intellectual interests and a weakness for solitary excursions. Julius, who studied in the United States with full scholarship in his youth, is a psychiatrist completing a fellowship. The narrator in Every Day also enjoyed a privileged education in the United States and has aspirations to be an author.
These young men have the intellectual means to analyze their exilic, marginal, postcolonial selves as well as they do thanks to the critical toolboxes of their first-world institutions. (They are familiar with the works of Derrida, Said, and Badiou.) They enjoy discussing issues, like migration and identity, on a theoretical level. Open City’s Julius meets Farouq, a Moroccan guy working at an internet cafe in Brussels, who boasts about having wanted “to be the next Edward Said” in his youth. Julius and Farouq discuss, among other things, Benedict Anderson’s views about the Enlightenment, the significance of sharia law in the post-9/11 world, and Paul de Man’s writings on insight and blindness. Farouq’s thesis on Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space was rejected by his department, a decision he believes was anti-Muslim. (The committee members convened nine days after 9/11.)
Although Cole’s characters seem to feel at home with theoretics, one can’t help but suspect that they use theory as a means to avoid their own problems. Beneath the glossy facade of the highbrow, impressively articulate Julius lies a very different character, as the book’s shocking finale shows, and it seems probable not only that Farouq failed to put the necessary work into his thesis, but that he also used his knowledge of identity politics to shape a politically loaded excuse for his academic failure. This is one of the important themes of both books: the postcolonial subject’s coming to terms with his status as a postcolonial subject. Every Day’s narrator continuously compares the lives of native Nigerians with his own first-world life. As a migrant with access to both the African and American realities, he is steeped in theoretical knowledge about his identity and knows that he knows more than his fellow Nigerians. He knows things most people in the United States could never know about the reality of Nigeria. This surplus knowledge defines Cole’s characters and also becomes burdens for them. For both narrators the question seems to be the same: what happens to a third-world identity after one learns how to deconstruct and use it as a tool to define oneself in a first-world setting?
Cole’s narrators are often eager to prove that they belong more to the first world than to their native cultures. Although Julius is half-German, his use of Germanic words and concepts sounds suspiciously pretentious. He is always trying to prove his membership in the first world, for which he believes artistic taste and theoretical knowledge are requisite qualities. His writing reveals a high-cultured disregard for the reader, such as in this meditation on Mahler’s music:
Mahler had worked, without self-pity, through his illness, through the catalogue of sufferings, and in his gargantuan compositions had worked elegy finely into elegy. He liked to say, with characteristic gallows humor, that Krankheit ist Talentlosigkeit — illness is a lack of talent. He made his own death matter — there was one of his great talents — so that it almost seemed as though he really died like a dragon breaking down a wall, as is said of certain great Chinese poets.
In contrast to Julius, the narrator of Every Day is more modest, less carefree, even a bit lifeless. This semi-autobiographical narrative is based on blog posts Cole had written in 2006, following a trip to Lagos after 13 years of absence, but of course Cole has fictionalized the story quite a bit.
Here’s how he opens the book:
I wake up late the morning I’m meant to go to the consulate. As I gather my documents just before setting out, I call the hospital to remind them I won’t be in until the afternoon. Then I enter the subway and make my way over to Second Avenue and, without much trouble, find the consulate. It occupies several floors of a skyscraper. A windowless room on the eighth floor serves as the section for consular services.
There is something oppressive in the calm way our narrator describes the rotten state of affairs in the Nigerian consulate: he patiently observes events that would infuriate any normal person. He describes the carpets, the fluorescent lights, the officers, the chairs; he analyzes how people bribe the officials and how widespread the corruption has become even in this small place, evincing a thick layer of futility that seems to have killed any joy the narrator may have once felt about the journey he is about to make. He notices how “each person takes a number from a red machine as they enter the dingy room” and describes the dirty carpet on the floor as having “the indeterminate color shared by all carpets in public places.” A wall-mounted television runs a news program through “a haze of static.” Although technically on US soil, the consulate is a metonym of a world where things are done differently. The Western ways that have become familiar to the narrator are barely discernible; they too can be seen only through a haze of static.
When he reaches Lagos, we see how the narrator wanders carefully, as if his aim in making the journey is largely to determine whether a creative individual who has spent many years in a Western country (like himself) can survive and succeed in his native land, and he monitors his emotions as if from a scientific distance. “There are practical issues to consider,” he muses after spending some time in the city: “There is the question of money, the question of my professional development and my other work. Serious questions for which there are answers. But there is also the question of my tolerance for the environment. Am I ready for all the rage Nigeria can bring out of me?”
During his month-long stay at his aunt’s house, the narrator wonders if he could return there for good. Every object, street, and local phenomenon is judged in the court of memory and reflection. Even the number of new fast-food chains leads to an almost Proustian bout of remembrance and comparison:
The proliferation of new eateries designed on the American fast-food model surprises me. When I left in the early nineties there was just one, Mr Bigg’s. Now there are several, many of them operating on the franchise system, in every neighborhood of the city.
Our narrator, we learn, had been studying at a military school when his father’s death “opened up the final cavern” between him and his mother. At the time he found the deprivations of life at his boarding school to be a refuge. “It was better to be there with those military brats, to struggle for survival in that Darwinian environment, than to sit in a large and silent house with my mother and her oppressive grief,” he recounts. As their relationship worsens, the narrator starts spending long vacations with his aunts, “and by the time I entered my final year of secondary school, I knew I had to leave Nigeria.”
In the present time of the novel, the narrator’s mother has already moved to the American West Coast, probably to California. The narrator is surprised by how “inessential” her memory has become. It is clear that he has no intention of dealing with their estrangement, and his disavowal of the past gives his narrative a chilling tone — not unlike Open City, where Julius writes about the history of classical music but never comes to terms with his own history.
At the airport, when a bribe-seeking official asks Every Day’s narrator what he has brought to the country, the narrator retains his characteristic sangfroid, saying, “I have brought only resolve. I ignore him,” and he continues on his way. When a few minutes after his arrival at his aunt’s house the electricity goes out, he gets angry for a moment or two. “For those who live here, this sudden deprivation is no surprise. It is a nocturnal ritual. But I’m no longer used to it, and I pass the night fitfully, tracing the shadows that flicker tirelessly on the concrete walls.” One can always feel the rage just beneath this character’s calm shadow tracing.
This returnee finds that adapting to American culture as a Nigerian is in a way easier than readapting to life in Lagos after having played the role of the outsider in the United States. What makes Every Day so interesting is the way it shows us this cultural difficulty that many people from the third world experience every year, be they Iranian exchange students studying in London or New York or Turkish guest workers living on the Continent and returning home to find it changed beyond recognition.
Free enterprise has come to the Lagos of 2006, and the narrator is on the lookout for things that are “being done right in the new Nigeria,” where people from all corners of the world have come to take advantage of the newly open economy. “Indians, Lebanese, Germans, Americans, Brits,” he writes. “I see them in the restaurants, in shopping malls, at the open markets. They have their own private schools, their own housing estates.” Compared to the city of his childhood, Lagos has become a more “advanced” society, where foreigners are no longer objects of curiosity, although its achievements fall short of the first world, whose economic models it systematically imitates. For a person familiar with readapting to one’s native country, the imitations of Cole’s Lagos are easily identifiable and pitiable. Knowledge of the gulf between the model and the imitation becomes a source of power only the migrant can possess.
The narrator writes with dry humor on certain Nigerian customs, such as “idea l’a need,” the idea that the unrealized aspects of an action are not so important as long as one creates the impression of completing that action. For example, when an electrician installs an antenna that fails to provide clear reception, he may be forgiven by his fellow Nigerians thanks to this concept. If a seatbelt latch is broken, one can sit on the buckle and pretend that it works and all is well. If the semblance of competence or safety is acceptable in such little things, then a person can easily waste his life away providing the semblance of achieving things. Says the narrator, “we do not foster the ways of thinking that lead to the development of telephones or jet engines. Part of that philosophical equipment is an attention to details: commitment to precision, an engagement with the creative and scientific spirit behind what one uses.” The narrator fears the influence of this spirit, both for himself as a writer and for his country in general.
Then there is the so-called “419” phenomenon, named after the section of criminal code that punishes the advance-fee email scams for which the country has become famous. At an internet café, our narrator sits next to a man composing such an email. “The words I see him type, ‘transfer,’ ‘dear friend,’ ‘deposited into your account forthwith,’ present incontrovertible evidence: he is composing a 419 letter. I have stumbled onto the origin of the world-famous digital flotsam.”
The practitioners of the scheme are known as “the yahoo boys,” and they lead unorthodox, nerdy lives: “While they often work in daytime, they prefer the night: that is when they have discounts at the cafes. Under cover of night, the yahoo boys can work for long, coffee-fuelled stretches, unmolested by censors.” Had they lived in San Francisco, they might be Twitter employees; in Lagos they are swindlers, albeit international and technically savvy ones. The “419” phenomenon, and the yahoo boys who practice it, are expressions of the entrepreneurial spirit, as well as examples of how Nigeria fails to provide proper structures for creativity and free enterprise.
Many passages in the book convey an unpolished, Polaroid-like quality. We experience moments of discovery in the same way the narrator experiences them: suddenly and without explanation. Take for instance the narrator’s encounter, in a danfo (a minibus carrying eight to 25 people), with a young girl, which owes its realism to this sketchy quality:
She holds a large book. The book’s dust jacket is off-white, matte. I cannot see her face, though I try to. But, as she sits down, I crane my neck to see what is printed on the book cover, and I catch sight of the author’s name. What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket: Michael Ondaatje.
Beautiful in its sketchiness, the passage reveals not so much that the girl is an object of desire to the narrator but that she represents to him another rung in his ongoing search for where he belongs. In another scene, the narrator impresses a local man by serving him some Pepsi in a can — much more expensive than bottled ones in Nigera. “I do not want to watch him drink, but there is nothing else to do,” the narrator says, and notices his shy manner and frail shoulders. Before taking his leave, the Nigerian expresses his delight at meeting someone from America. “So this is a good day for me,” he says: “Actually I want to know you. I mean, actually, to have us know each other, you know. Maybe one day, by knowing you, I can have a chance to go to America.” The Nigerian man reminds the narrator of Leonard Bast in Howards End:
The acute awareness of a social gap and the hope, yet, that the gap can be bridged by enthusiasm and application. He reminds me, painfully, of myself, of times when I was the one in socially asymmetrical situations, in my early years in the United States, the times when I had been someone else’s Leonard Bast.
This man is an earlier incarnation of the narrator, a more basic version of his self.
Through these encounters, the narrator tries to figure out whether Nigeria has managed to resemble the United States enough to make him want to return to it. Can a creative person survive there? A big fan of jazz music, the narrator observes how the copyrights of intellectual property are systematically violated in Lagos, and he can’t help but feel sorry for Nigerians, especially artists, musicians, and authors, who have little hope of making a living by their paintings, records, or books. The city’s music shops may have rich jazz archives, but when a customer wants to purchase an album on display, he is provided with a pirated copy of it. Again, imitation triumphs over the real thing. “Do they have any idea that this is a problem?” the narrator wonders. “Or is it enough to settle for sophistication without troubling oneself about the laws that defend creativity?”
In the end, the narrator doesn’t leave Lagos, he escapes from it.
And yet … Lagos is also the place that defines the narrator as a writer. Nigeria makes him an artist while simultaneously inhibiting his creativity. During a visit to a Nigerian suburb, he muses about the literary potential of Lagos, musing, rather provocatively: “Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago.” Of course, Updike also had to transform his American identity while becoming a novelist, as all writers do no matter where they’re from. But compared to an American writer who transforms himself into a great author, a Nigerian writer’s transformation to a writerly life in New York has more potential to attract the attention of prize committees and endowments’ boards. In that sense, Nigeria is a wealth as well as a burden. The narrator believes that he doesn’t have to be as talented as Updike, but he has to find a way of transforming his Nigerian identity into literature, which requires talent of a different kind.
A writer, whether in America or Africa, is an observer of the world, and his first and foremost priority is to preserve a clarity of vision, which also reveals to him the complexities of his identity. Though with similar themes, Open City is a more mature work, or seems so given the self-confidence of the book’s narrator. His opening sentences:
And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible.
Here the narrator takes his time, describing different paths available to the city wanderer instead of writing about the one he has taken. Drawing the topography of New York City, he creates a space for the reader. While Every Day details the specifics of its narrator’s journey in Lagos, Open City’s more polished sentences put the experiences of its wanderer in the background. In Every Day we experience Lagos as if we are watching a film. In Open City we inhabit post-9/11 New York as if we are left alone there to wander at will.
“I had fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment,” writes Julius. He understands that the birds may be doing the same thing, observing his movements as he moves around the city. Unlike the Every Day narrator, he acknowledges that people and animals have their own lives and concerns and are not there merely to provide data in his search for identity.
Julius’s objectivity reminded me of Man with a Movie Camera, the experimental documentary by Soviet director Dziga Vertov, who sent cameramen to Kiev and Odessa to capture the reality of life there. But Vertov’s style is far from naturalistic or “objective.” He aggressively edits the material his cameramen bring to him from the streets; the resultant film is both fiction and nonfiction, just as Open City is. In one scene Julius goes to the cinema to see The Last King of Scotland. As he starts to reminisce about Idi Amin, the narrative takes a nonfictional, essayistic shape, where film criticism and political commentary come together (as they do, incidentally, in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle). In another scene at the American Folk Art Museum, Julius provides us with encyclopedic descriptions about the museum’s objects, nudging the tone of the narrative into the contemplative and the philosophical:
I lost all track of time before these images, fell deep into their world, as if all the time between them and me had somehow vanished, so that when the guard came up to me to say the museum was closing, I forgot how to speak and simply looked at him. When I eventually walked down the stairs and out of the museum, it was with the feeling of someone who had returned to the earth from a great distance.
At some point in his wanderings of the city’s bookstores and cinemas, Julius is overcome by a feeling that his maternal grandmother should see him again, “or that I should make the effort to see her, if she was still in this world, if she was in a nursing home somewhere in Brussels.” Julius’s resultant visit to Brussels provides us with further observations about art and museums. It also gives rise to an important question, one that Julius has been probing from the very beginning of the book: how much can the observer penetrate the depths of what he observes?
It was a city of monuments, and greatness was set in stone and metal all over Brussels, obdurate replies to uncomfortable questions. It was time, in any case, to go home, to leave Claudel with his wet bronze head, to leave, in the museum next door, Auden’s Bruegel with its falling Icarus, and the unforgettable painting by an anonymous painter of a young girl with a dead sparrow.
In “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which he wrote while staying in Brussels, W. H. Auden produces one of the world’s most profound musings on how we humans perceive, or don’t perceive, the suffering of others; he noticed “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Despite the fact that a boy miraculously falls out of the sky, the delicate ship in Auden’s poem (and in Bruegel’s painting) has “somewhere to get to,” and so it sails “calmly on.” It is this perfection of observation the narrator fears that he will never reach in Every Day. In Open City, Julius, and his creator Cole, can be said to reach it, although some may prefer the imperfect sketches to the perfect painting.