No 677 Open City by Teju Cole

open city

In Open City, Teju Cole’s main character, Julius, visits an exhibition of work by John Brewster. One image in particular catches his attention, a painting of a child holding a bird on the end of a blue thread. He notes the striking use of colour in the painting and muses that

The bird represents the child’s soul…The child in the Brewster painting looked out with a serene and ethereal expression from the year 1805. Was this portrait a talisman against death? Was it a magical wish that the child would hold on the life, as he held on to the string?

Francis O. Watts with Bird (1805) by John Brewster
Francis O. Watts with Bird (1805) by John Brewster

It is telling that descriptions of birds open and close Open City, dealing as it does with issues of migration, journeys and a moveable sense of place and of self.

Julius, the book’s half-Nigerian, half German narrator is in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship, has recently had a break-up and has little contact with family and only a few friends. He regularly sets out from his home on aimless walks around the city, meeting and talking to strangers, reminiscing about his childhood in Nigeria and using what he sees as a springboard to think about art, literature, music and critical theory. In terms of plot, there is not a lot to go on. Julius visits an old professor friend, runs into an Moji, the sister of an old friend from Nigeria, goes to Brussels over Christmas, attends a concert, a movie, visits Ground Zero and gets mugged.

Ground Zero, today.
Ground Zero, today.

The journeys he describes are less narrative devices to move the plot forward and more travels of the mind. Every meeting or happening is a starting point for musings on cultural and social life and the history, both forgotten and memorialised, of his adopted city.

As a part German, part Nigerian he feels an outsider everywhere, even in the country he calls home. He feels a latent racism from other patrons when he attends a concert conducted by Simon Rattle. However, when other African immigrants try and claim kinship with him, his reaction is to retreat and remain aloof and the one time he attempts to acknowledge that kinship, he is mugged by those he appropriated as his own people.

The majority of the people Julius meets are immigrants or emigrants, people outside the mainstream, like himself who have come to New York from other places, often in difficult circumstances – a Liberian being held in a detention facility, a Haitian shoe shiner, a professor who lived through Japanese internment and a passionate Moroccan student working in an Internet café in Brussels. All tell him their conflicting and connecting histories,

unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them

and through their small stories, Julius extrapolates out to the stories the city holds, African burial grounds, memorials to Mahler and Nietzsche and that ultimate point of recent history, Ground Zero. These chance meetings and small vignettes of conversation layer upon each other to create the image of a post 9/11 city, almost buckling under the weight of its multi-culturalism.

The notion of the Open City can take on two meanings in Cole’s book – the idea of a city that is open to anyone from anywhere and will take them in and give them refuge. Julius, with his rambling walks around the city and his openness to talk to people and hear their stories would suggest a place of freedom and acceptance. But an open city has darker undertones, relating to a city that has laid down its defences and allowed an invading army in to destroy it from within.

New York Skyline, 1908
New York Skyline, 1908

Julius is also drawn to this darkness, to this sedimentary nature of history and muses of course, on 9/11, but also on the countless other atrocities across the world –both historical and recent.

This was not the first erasure on the site. Before the towers had gone up, there had been a bustling network of little streets traversing this part of town….all of them obliterated in the 1960’s to make way for the World Trade Center buildings, and all were forgotten now……

…..The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten

This notion of erasing and rewriting is echoed in the form of the book. Open City reads like a diary and indeed Julius’ cool, detached style and constant intellectual digressions suggest a character who is writing for an audience, writing to be read. This may be a novel of spatial awareness, but it is also a novel of the mind. There are almost two stories going on here, the one Julius is telling us and the one we have to look a little closer, often in the gaps to see. We do not know why he has recently split from his girlfriend, or why his relationship with his mother has deteriorated. His trip to Brussels is made on the insistence that he wants to find his grandmother whom he thinks is living there, but his attempt to track her down involves little more than a half-hearted search through a phone book. It’s possible to read Julius’ musings on JM Coetzee, Mahler and Barthes as simply the reflections of a cultured, intelligent man, but they are often forced and feel like a front to hide the real person.

Teju Cole
Teju Cole

For all the knowledge, culture and political discourse displayed in Open City, this is probably the cleverest thing that Cole does. The hints are there all the way through, but an incident towards the end of the book with Moji, a woman Julius knows from his home town in Nigeria, throws our reading of the whole book into disarray and it would seem that we have on our hands an unreliable narrator. It is as if Julius, in trying to find his place in New York, has been creating a sanitised and safe version of his own past and we may never be able to truly know him, just as he is unable to know himself. He muses on reality much more than he ever explores it and his reaction to Moji’s confrontation is muted and frustratingly dismissive.

Open City is not an easy book – it is full of political and historical musings and discourses on art, literature and classical music. Yet at no time do these feel forced, either by the character or by the author. The book is also full of some beautiful moments, perfectly described. While passing a play park, Julius notices that

The creak-creak of the swings was a signal…there to remind children that they were having fun; if there was no creak, they would be confused.

An old woman leaving a Mahler concert early becomes part of the music, otherworldly

As she drifted to the entrance and out of sight, in her gracefulness she resembled nothing so much as a boat departing on a country lake early in the morning, which, to those still standing on the shore, appears not to sail but to dissolve into the substance of fog.

Some of the meetings do at times feel a little forced, could someone really meet that many random people with such interesting stories to tell? The section set in Brussels where Julius falls in with a Moroccan student did drag a little for me and I can understand how the incident with Moji could feel unresolved for some. However, as a whole, Open City is a marvellous treatise on the nature of migration, the history of place and how quickly terrors can be forgotten and replaced with new ones. It is an exploration of suffering, migration and tolerance bringing the past and the present into sharp relief and posing the question of how we place ourselves and how we connect both with history and with fellow human beings.

Generations rush through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.


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Number Read: 70

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21 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Lovely review. This is in my #TBR20 so I’m planning to read it myself at some point over the next month or two. Interesting points on front, and on the meaning of the title. I wonder if there’s an element of reference to the film Rome, Open City which is about Rome when occupied by the Nazis. Your question reminded me of it, which makes me suspect it’s not a coincidence.


    • There are quite a few musings on the Holocaust Max, so I doubt it’s a coincidence. It is a very smart, very complex book and I don’t think many references are in there by chance. I’d love to know what you think when you get round to reading it.


  2. Wonderful review, Cathy. I fell for this book in a big way when I read it a couple of years ago. Cole feels like one of those writers you’re just happy to go with to see where he takes you. I think I know what you mean about the ending and the way it casts a very different light on everything that has come before…it’s a book I’d like to reread at some point.


    • Thank you Jacqui, I’m glad I didn’t know much about it before I started it. A poll somewhere ranked it as the best book of the last decade which is why I picked it up. For a book that is so cerebral, it was very readable. Plus I kept having to stop to Google the artists, photographers and writers who were being mentioned 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good review, Cathy. I LOVE this book. Very much reminds me of WG Sebald in style and the twist at the end is brilliant in making you reconsider everything you’ve read before. You’ve made me want to re-read it now!


  4. I’ve been meaning to read a book by Teju Cole. I love the quote about the noise of the swingset. Even though as a kid, I actually found that noise really annoying and wished I could swing without it!


  5. I’ve been meaning and meaning to read this book – but am finding it hard to get hold of it over here. Sounds like my kind of thing – cerebral, about immigrants and emigrants, and with a twist at the end… bliss!


  6. You have me thinking that I should read this book. For some reason, I’ve had a block against it. I think it reminds me of a certain type of hipster/new yorkish book that there are really far too many of out there these days. And I hate, hate, hate, the cover art. But maybe I should put all that aside and give it a go…


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