BOOKS TO READ: Teju Cole’s Open City

By Panashe Chigumadzi @panashechig

This sort of detour is something I call ‘qualification’, which is not unlike when the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye name-drop and reference the Andy Warhols, Jean-Michel Basquiats and Picassos of the world. In other words, this was similar to the kind of thing people do when they want to prove their cultural depth or gain cultural capital by referencing the cultural artifacts that they are familiar with as a matter of course. 

Available online at Amazon.

Excerpt:

Farouq opened the register. I wished the customers would stop interrupting us. For a moment too I thought I should correct his slightly inaccurate quotation of Meir. But I was unsure of my ground, and he continued as though there had been no interruption at all. A question was asked, he said, during a discussion of political philosophy. We were supposed to choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and I was the only person who chose Malcolm X. Everyone in class was in disagreement with me and they said, “Oh, you chose him because he is a Muslim and you are a Muslim.”

Teju Cole’s debut novel is the slowly progressing narration of the seemingly aimless wanderings of Julius, a young German-Nigerian doctor, as he moves both in physical and mental reality across Europe, Africa and North America. It is written like a diary, as Julius takes us through the motions of his life in a way that is undramatic and unpressured.

The book is not so much depictive of the world as a cultural melting pot where various cultures are mixed, but rather a cultural mosaic where cultures connect and intersect in interesting and unobvious ways. For example, in Queens we visit a Liberian, imprisoned for more than two years in a detention facility;  in Brussels we are served by an angry, or as they say, disaffected, Moroccan student at an Internet café and at Penn Station, our shoes are made to shine by a Haitian man. This is very much the story about immigrants (and emigrants) navigating their way on foreign soil.

Much of the plot is played out in the mental detours that Julius, or shall we say, Cole takes at the slightest provocation. We know that Julius is well read as he tells us of books such as ‘Cosmopolitanism’ by Kwame Anthony Appiah and ‘Telegrams of the Soul’ by Peter Altenberg; forms his own opinions on various social and critical theories (he chooses Malcolm X over Malcolm Luther King for one); he can debate the merits of artists such as Chardin and Velázquez; and appreciates the music of the likes of Mahler, and Judith Weir.

This sort of detour is something I call ‘qualification’, which is not unlike when the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye name-drop and reference the Andy Warhols, Jean-Michel Basquiats and Pablo Picassos of the world. In other words his parenthesis was to me similar to the kind of thing people do when they want to prove their cultural depth or gain cultural capital by referencing the cultural artifacts that they are familiar with as a matter of course. I found it tedious and overbearing, such that I was constantly wishing for Cole to leave it and return to what is otherwise an engaging narrative. Of course this ‘qualifying parenthesis’ is just as much a part of the novel as was the plot, and for that reason this book is not a favourite of mine.

 

FURTHER READING:

 

1 Comment
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