Open City by Teju Cole

Reading Open City, it’s easy to imagine that you’re on the listening end of a psychotherapy session. The narrator, Julius, is a Nigerian-born psychiatrist completing his residency in New York City.  It is from his point-of-view that the reader experiences the novel, which is not so much a sequential narrative of events as it is the gradual dismantling of Julius’ psyche: a man who has emotionally removed himself from the messiness of life.

Instead of a traditional story we are given streams of beautiful, thoughtful prose.  Often Julius reveals more to the reader than he is, himself, aware of.  I wouldn’t go so far as to classify him as an unreliable narrator, there’s a vulnerability to his speeches that screams honesty.  He’s not the most likeable person.  His self-absorption makes it too easy for him to discard the past and its relationships.  With one possible exception, all his interactions with other people are transient.   The careful reader detects a certain amount of self-denial, or mental obfuscation, in Julius as regards his own nature.  When confronted with his true character he is incapable of acknowledging it.

We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.  The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.  Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity.

There were several moments when Open City reminded me of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge or, more recently, Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (both Chejfec & Cole were part of the Walker in the City panel that I attended at the Brooklyn Book Festival).  Mixed in with unintended personal revelations by the narrator are stunning descriptive passages which pull you into the page and make you forget that you are reading a book.

Their pause let me hear the other sound present, that of an instrument being played at the opposite end of the park.  I wanted to get closer to it, and so I walked under the arbor of elms, passing by rows of concrete chess tables, which were oases of order and invitations to a twinned solitude.  But no one sat at them or played chess.  Around the tables, where they sank into the earth, moss grew, spreading up the concrete and into the ground so that it seemed as if the chessboards had grown roots.  I walked under the trees, past the creak of the children’s swings and, as I moved closer to the end of the arbor, I could make out the sound of an ehru.  The line was breathy and nimble, the precise nimbleness of an old-fashioned thing.  How clear its sound in the park, how unlike the whine the same instrument made when it was played by a subway busker competing with the screech of subway trains.

Julius’ thoughts form a continuous, uninterrupted dialogue with the reader – transitions are created by the changes in the setting.  Our narrator is a walker.  He takes us all over New York City, through the city of Brussels, makes references to the terrains of Nigeria and France.  It gives structure to a story that could easily sprawl out of control.

Open City is Teju Coles’ first novel, but reads as the work of a mature and experienced author.  No surprise it’s on a bunch of the 2011 Best Of lists (including the New Yorker, the Seattle Times & TIME).  I definitely recommend getting a copy.  And, while you’re at it – Teju Cole is also on Twitter.  If you aren’t already following him @tejucole then you’re missing out on some great (& free) flash fictions.  Here’s an example:

https://twitter.com/#!/tejucole/status/145413544928739328

Publisher:  Random House, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 4000 6809 8

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My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson)

Like the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I am an inveterate walker.  Never to be confused with a hiker, city walkers are an entirely separate category who delight in the organized, the man-made, the carefully choreographed.    We choose “To walk and nothing but.  Not to walk without a destination, as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and the terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.”  While I have explored most of the major U.S. cities on foot – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, etc., my international resume is limited.  I have never been to Brazil, yet Sergio Chejfec so thoroughly captures the essential place-ness of the park through which his narrator travels that I feel I could add it (my guess is Parque Farroupilha/A Redenção in Porto Alegre?) to my Top 10 list of  best walks. Ev-er.

Because reading My Two Worlds is the literary equivalent to taking a leisurely, meandering and  companionable walk with a new friend.   He talks while you enjoy the scenery.  Quickly you learn that our anonymous narrator is male, an author and a few days away from turning fifty.  He is shy.  He is in the habit of greeting people he does not know and who do not return his greeting.  He’s also a bit paranoid.  We learn few specifics about his background such as that he has friends, but no children and is not currently in a romantic relationship.  He talks about a niece and two nephews of whom he seems vaguely fond of (or is he just fond the idea that he is fond of them?  Like some people are in love with the idea of being in love?).  He tells you that his last novel is not being reviewed well, but can only cite his own dissatisfaction with his writing and  a malicious email containing a link to a bad review as evidence of this.

This new friend is in the city attending a literary conference.  As is his habit when traveling, he has obtained a map from the hotel front desk and carefully planned his walk the night before.  He carries his writing supplies with him in a backpack.  Other than his compulsion to walk he’s not particularly quirky or strange (as far as narrator’s go he’s amazingly tame).  While his thoughts trend towards the philosophical and the introspective at no point did I detect self-pity. Just an underlying dissatisfaction.  I do not want to give the impression that My Two Worlds is depressing – it’s not at all!  Probably due to the narrator’s dry sense of humor – which pops up frequently and unexpectedly.   And also because the narrator/companion/stranger is easy to like. He’s oddly endearing.  Someone I find myself wanting to spend more time with  than the 103 page book allows for.

As the author moves us from one section of the park to another we listen to the narrator’s opinions of himself and his surroundings.  It’s a fine park – the star of the novel.  It has an aviary, a fountain, a labyrinth, a lake filled with aquatic life (fish, turtles, frogs), paddle boats for rent and a little cafe with a lovely view.  The writing shines in the descriptions of these landscapes.  Somehow Chejfec has struck just the right note: providing enough detail to place his reader on the path beside his narrator, but avoids becoming bogged down by minutia.  He beautifully recreates the sense of discovery that occurs while wandering through a well designed park – the wonder of turning a corner and stepping in front of a carefully planned perspective.  The narrator is constantly projecting his emotional state onto these environments.  (As we all do to a greater or lesser extent).   Chejfec uses this interaction between man and terrain to explore how the interior and exterior worlds reflect each other.  The narrator seems to feel he must be, or is, constantly choosing between them.  What he does not realize is that they are one in the same.

As had happened several times earlier on this outing, before long I spotted a light area toward the end of the path; and when I drew closer, some ten minutes later, I glimpsed a tableau that at first disturbed me, I don’t know why:  over there a good-sized, tranquil lake lay hidden, and from where I was approaching I could make out some unexpected, gigantic swans, stock-still and arrayed as if in regimental formation.  As I drew nearer to the water and the scene grew better lit, I felt a mixture of wariness and wonder.  Wariness owing to something quite primal, for which I realized I wasn’t prepared:  simply the size of those pedal boats in the shape of swans, which one associated more with some monstrous scale than with any idea of a replica or an amusement; and wonder because of the illusion of standing before an inanimate army, but one that seemed subject to a latent vitality, ready to awaken or be activated at any moment.

Whether you approach it at a symbolic level, or go with a more superficial interpretation, My Two Worlds is a deeply satisfying read.  It is easily my favorite novel of 2011.  Wonderful, charming and intelligent – I believe Sergio Chejfec is a master.  What I love most about this book is probably what many reviewers have found frustrating: how atypical it is of the majority of what is published by the larger houses.  It is less a story than it is an experience.  Because of that, and the high quality of the writing, I am impatient for more of this author’s work to be translated into English. (Note:  I vaguely remember hearing at BEA that Open Letter Books, the publisher of the English translation of My Two Worlds, is planning to release a second book by Sergio Chejfec.  I still need to confirm that information).

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 28 3