Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Open City : Teju Cole

Open City
By Teju Cole

Meditative, reflective, introspective, Cole quietly and perceptively touches upon and probes a swath of cultures, philosophies, and issues.  It's actually quite astounding not only the breadth of topics Cole gets into, but also that he seems to to have a depth of knowledge and thoughtfulness on each.

The novel is relatively unstructured, jumping from narrative to memory in a sometimes jarringly non-chronological manner.  There is no arc to the narrative and the prose is dense with observations, bringing to mind a mood of sitting in a cafe and observing all people and details around you.

The protagonist, Julius, is a German/Nigerian psychiatrist and there is a good amount of thought on the culture and history of some African countries, something I appreciated.

I'll also quote a few passages, which stuck out.

On the nature of mental illness
   There is a long marriage between comedy and human suffering, and mental illness, in particular, is easily played for laughs. But I had dozens of cases that would have been ill-suited for that purpose, and sometimes it is hard to shake the feeling that, all jokes aside, there really is an epidemic of sorrow sweeping our world, the full brunt of which is being borne, for now, by only a luckless few.
Julius has visited Brussels for a month and ends up talking with Farouq, a Morrocan, about his beliefs and of Islamism and 9/11 (not quoted).
   Farouq... continued as though there had been no interruption at all... We were supposed to choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and I was the only person who chose Malcolm X...  I chose him because I agree with him, philosophically, and I disagree with Martin Luther King. Malcom X recognized that difference contains its own value, and that the struggle must be to advance that value. Martin Luther King is admired by everyone, he wants everyone to join together, but this idea that you should let them hit you on the other side of your face, this makes no sense to me.
   It's a Christian idea, I said. He was a churchman, you see, his principles came from the Christian concept. That is it exactly, Farouq said. This is not an idea I can accept. There's always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has the noble ideas; I disagree with this expectation.  It's an expectation that works sometimes, I said, but only if your enemy is not a psychopath. You need an enemy with a capacity for shame. I wonder sometimes how far Gandhi would have gotten if the British had been more brutal. If they had been willing to kill masses of protesters. Dignified refusal can only take you so far. Ask the Congolese.
Race in the US is frequently examined in a pretty nuanced way.  Below is probably the least subtle of his examinations, but is something that I've personally felt many times in my life.
Again the oboist played an A, and this time the woodwinds tuned, and they were joined by a flurry of strings. At last a signal came from the stage, and a hush fell on the hall. Almost everyone, as almost always as such concerts, was white. It is something I can't help noticing; I notice it each time, and try to see past it. Part of that is a quick, complex series of negotiations: chiding myself for even seeing it, lamenting the reminders of how divided our life still remains, being annoyed that these thoughts can be counted on to pass through my mind as some point in the in the evening. Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave 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. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand.  At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission. I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler's music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whither it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.  Simon Rattle, smiling, his curly hair bouncing, came onstage to applause. He acknowledged the orchestra, and then lights dimmed further. The silence became total and, after a moment of anticipation, Rattle gave the downbeat, and the music began.
 All in all, I really enjoyed this one and I'll be on the look out for any other works Cole writes.

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