"The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space..."
The title of Teju Cole’s Open City takes its meaning from a particular wartime terminology: an “open city” refers to a city that declares itself open in the advent of oncoming attack or capture, thus avoiding military siege, bombing, or attack. The open city, as it were, sets its capture in motion before any capture even takes place; one that invites a gentle occupation. It’s a defensive strategy, and a preventive one, but most importantly – it aims to be protective.
The themes of self-protection and self-preservation are also the central concerns embedded in the life of the narrator of this outstanding book, Julius, a Nigerian-German psychiatrist who lives and works in New York.
That the word ‘psychiatry’ has its origins in the word psychiatria (“healing of the soul”) is one of the clues that inform us of Julius’s state of mind. Open City is an extended meditation on the soul that is trying to heal, as its narrator appears to try to dodge and evade some aspects of his life while keeping the reader interested with the articulated passions of a true intellectual polymath and engaged flaneur. It’s no surprise that Julius’s excavation of the self is an act of psychogeography, one where the cities’ anxieties, fears, and self-imposed borders are grafted onto the psyche – or is it the other way around?
According to Charles Baudelaire in his 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”, this is what the flaneur wants: “His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”
This point of “immense joy” is debatable for 21st century flaneurs, and one only wonders if it could have been true for the people roaming the Parisian arcades and newly-commissioned boulevards of the 19th century. For Julius at the start of the book, for whom “New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace,” the city is a potent reminder of thriving, heaving humanity – a mass of flesh that that the solitary person wants to be a part of without becoming a part of:
“The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into the underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counterinstinctive death drive, into movable catacombs. Aboveground I was with thousands of others in their solitude, but in the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us re-enacting unacknowledged traumas, the solitude intensified.”
Three cities form the nexus between Julius’s ruminations and his lived experiences. While Open City is foregrounded in his current living space of New York City, the spectre of his childhood city, Lagos, floats in and out of his narrative. Meanwhile, the titular open city of the past is Brussels, where Julius goes on a short trip, spurred on by memories of his German grandmother who had lived there, and this is where some of the most arresting incidents take place – moments where Julius’s personal stories collide with the stories of others, most notably that of Farouq, a Moroccan immigrant in Brussels.
Farouq is yet another widely-read polymath, and he bears the burden of Muslim male brownhood in contemporary Europe. His conversations with Julius cover the Palestine issue, where Norman Finkelstein and Edward Said are name-checked, to the Arab question, as well as the nature of racism and Islamophobia and immigration, and the paucity of access to wider social and intellectual networks to intelligent young Muslim men like him who migrate to Europe in order to pursue, as it were, an education. “This is why Said means so much to me,” Farouq tells Julius, explaining to Julius that Said knew that “difference as orientalist entertainment is allowed, but difference with its own intrinsic value, no.”
Far from being a self-indulgent, myopic journey of the self that values the personal over the political, Open City dips into the singular, pertinent cultural and sociological questions of our day. It frames those issues within Julius’s cautious, wide-ranging observations on 9/11, the Palestine question, the question of orientalism, racism, and cultural and economic appropriation of the global south by the global north, the question of the political fissures and occupations and ravaged homelands of the many immigrants who form the thriving cityscape of New York.
Early on in the book, while thinking over the film Last King of Scotland, Julius notes that Africa “was always waiting, a substrate for the white man’s will, a backdrop for his activities” and towards the end, while attending a performance of Mahler’s work at Carnegie Hall, he steadfastly continues his clear-eyed observations on the ease with which one can leave behind the “hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them.”
Julius isn’t interested in covering up the ugliness of the city; such an impulse would be beneath his piercing intelligence. Cole’s biography describes him as a “writer, photographer, and professional historian of early Netherlandish art”, and his language sketches out images, places and shapes of cities like how his photographs seem to capture a moment, but Cole’s most imaginative literary trick is the creation of Julius, whose casual revelation about a personal action of his in the past is delivered with such breathtaking composure that the reader – this reader, at least – had to put the book down for a few hours and calm herself.
Memories, self-awareness, and self-assessment are conjured up by the self, for the self, but profound question remains: how much can one trust the self? “Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him,” Julius ruminates, and while his mind is open to sights and sounds and people and music and literature, one wonders what happens, in the end, to an “open mind”. Does its fate also lie in captivity by a force, known or unknown?
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud wrote about the ways in which “civilization overcomes the dangerous aggressivity of the individual, by weakening him, disarming him and setting up an internal authority to watch over him, like a garrison in a conquered town.” I read Open City as an analogy of the mind as a conquered town, the garrison built in place by the internal mechanisms of the mind itself which manifest in the lies which we tell ourselves, the lies which we forget to tell ourselves, and through it all, the conjuring act that we do with our own memories that renders even our own past an effect of smoke and mirrors. That Julius is a civilised man, a well-read, intelligent man whom one might refer to as Renaissance man of taste and manners, is an interesting collusion between the forces of ‘civilisation’ and that of self-deception.
At some towards the end of the book, Julius refers to Freud for the first time: “I read Freud only for literary truths.” Novels are read precisely for literary truths, but Open City is a stunning work in which the mechanism of fiction itself turns upon the role of literary truth in the creation of a self, real or imagined. Why am I going to believe you, the reader wants to ask Julius in the end, but the answer is already self-evident: there are no truths about the self, Cole seems to want to convey, only the stories we tell to ourselves and others to hold the fort against the always-conquering internal, psychical garrisons.