Open City – notes

Open City
by Teju Cole
2012 /  272 pages (K)
Rating –

In this strange book a black psychiatrist wanders around Manhattan thinking about things,  going places,  thinking.  This 1st person  is studying the elderly with a colleague and has a friend and ex-teacher who is quite elderly,  a neighbor who is retired and whose wife died.   1st  is treating a  good friend,  V.,  a descendant of the Delaware Indians,  for depression.  V. writes about Van Tienhoven and his atrocities in a book called The Monster of New Amsterdam (fictitious!) which has become an award-winner.  V. says

“It is a difficult thing to live in a country that has erased your past.”   1st  wants to read her book.   He/she sees blind and crippled people and thinks of  Obatala   (a Yoruban Nigerian divinity)

It seems our protagonist would rather study life than live it.  The weather is warm so he thinks about global warming how there was a tiny  ice age in the 16th century  so why not be a natural event.  And his mind turns to ignorance and anti-science politics.

Goes to a movie –  The Last King of Scotland – 2006 –  (based in fact of Bob Astles‘ life) and gets angry.  As a child he had to watch the movie The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin .

Remembers hearing a diatribe by an American surgeon with  Indian-Ugandan background who was angry about Amin and all of Africa.  It  is here we find out for sure that the protagonist is Black – although Nigerian.

“I wished to believe that things were not as bad as they seemed.  This was the part fo me that wanted to be entertained, that preferred not to confront the horror.”

Taking the train home he is confronted by a 13-yearold and her 10-year old brother  (how does he know their ages?).  The boy is wearing an imitation Chinese peasant’s hat and they have been imitating the slanted eyes and exaggerated brows of Asians.  The two accuse him of being a gangster – because he’s Black.
He wants to reunite with his Oma who is in Belgium.

3.   First person remembers meeting Oma in Nigeria when Belgian grandmother came to visit.  They visited Yorubaland – Deji’s Palace, Ikogosi Warm Stprings,  Olumo Rock – 1st person doesn’t know where Oma is now – if alive – and won’t ask his mother.  (“the one person I couldn’t ask.”)

He walks and walks –  Goes through Central Park – Sheep Meadow: 

Sheep Meadow – NYC – 2004

Goes to the American Folk Art Museum  where he sees Early and Native American works:

Aimee Phillips and John Brester

Girl in Red Dress by Ammi Phillips (ca. 1812-1818)

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

Brewster was deaf – painted deaf children,

Age,  memory,  horrors, art and  silence are becoming themes.    Homer was blind.  Our 1st remembers an old blind man in Lagos – a bard of sorts. – Deaf are usually treated as retarded.

“Standing before Brewer’s portraits, my mind quiet, I saw the paintings as records “of a silent transaction between artist and subject.”   Vermeer, Chardin, Hammershoi

Then Cole goes on about Watts (all verifiable) and I’m wondering how much of this book is fiction.  (heh)  –   The award-winning book by 1st’s friend V. is.   And  I wonder how much is from sources more esoteric than Wikipedia.  (heh)

One Shoe Off – Brewster – 1807He stays in the museu

Sarah Prince (deaf) at the pianoforte

Our 1st person stayed until closing – he has almost forgotten his own voice.   The cars are jarring.  He remembers the Sarah Prince painting – and then he gets in a huff about taxis and with a driver and ends up walking the last few blocks home in the rain.  The driver calls him brother and that

I think this man has had too much silence and museums to be of much use to the world.   He is living in his head.   A Brewster biography  reviewed.

4.   More walking in the rain remembering Yoruba and Olodumare.  He goes to a lecture by a Polish poet who talks of persecution – fiction? This goes nowhere.

Compares psychiatry to surgery – another patient – M. – on meds for delusions.  After the session with M,  1st  misses his stop and finally exits at an uncrowded  station he’s not familiar with.   Out to the street and although he recognizes where he is,  there’s no noise because the street has been cordoned off.  He sees an artist with easel painting the Stock Exchange in “grisaille” (monochrome grays).

Not only is this world without sound, but it has precious little color – the people seem to be dressed in blacks and grays.  There’s plenty of glass windows,  then Trinity Church where 1st thinks about M.s difficulties – the poor patient thinks he’s God?  –  (don’t know)

1st goes in the church graveyard –  we still only know that 1st is a rather intellectual black psychiatrist in New York –  probably from Nigeria.   Hamilton,  John Jacob Astor,  Robert Fulton,  George Templeton Strong are all buried there along with many Elizas,  Elizabeths,  Elisabeths who died in childbirth or younger.   Children’s graves.   Then around the church looking for historical evidence – later found a story about a beached 54-foot white whale in the Netherlands.

beached whale in Netherlands – 1598

All of these things “mean” something –  a message from god of from the sea or someplace.  And then of course Heman Melville had to do something with such a story.  And now 1st has nowhere to pray as 1st really can’t get into the church.

(The above may be a metaphor – for all the senses we have,  we can’t get into our souls 0r the souls of another human being.  The entrances are taken up with memory and senses.

Aerial photo of the WRC site taken 9/23/01

1st walks back and avoids an “empty space” but can’t really get past it –  the site of 9/11.  A tourist once asked 1st how to get to 9/11,  the event.  There is no way there.  Now it’s all  chained up.  1st goes to an almost empty bar,  a few men sitting alone.  A man comes in and recognizes 1st from the art museum – he’s a guard.  “He looked like Nabokov’s Pnin come to life.”    He’s black but from Barbuda -the  Caribbean.   Says old  housemate was from Nigeria – Yemi,  Yoruba.  –  1st is not liking these “claims” on him –  taxi driver and now this guard.  Lived in Littleton – home of Columbine High School.  The guard makes a bit of a pass but 1st passes on it.

** We don’t know whether 1st is male or female.**

Manhattan is an island which has “banished” the water.  He’s on the promenade thinking about the water.  Sees Jersey and the Statue of Liberty and knows Ellis Island is out there.  Early Africans weren’t immigrants.  Ellis for Europeans.

**  And now,  page 55,  I’d venture to say that 1st is a young male –
“This was the acknowledgement he wanted,  in his brusque fashion, from every ‘brother’ he met.”  And, about “two old men, ”  “their eyes signaled  nothing other than the usual gap between the old and the  young.”    And I’m going to call the 1st “he” now.

Our 1st thinks of his patient,  M, who has cheated on his wife and been thrown out and M. is now horribly  remorseful.  Our 1st thinks about his own heartache and the idea of suicide via the waterways crosses his mind.

Police memorial at the World Financial Center

He wanders by the plaza near the World Financial Center where the 9/11 wall stands with  the names of the police victims inscribed.

On his walks now he has seen 3 exercise gyms with the people looking out at the view,  silently,  thinking ??  At this point they are looking at the 9/11 work site (2006 or prior), tourist advertisements on the overpass.   Our hero wonders about the atrocity (1st’s word)  of herding humans ” ‘ like animals’ stumbling to the slaughter.   This reminds him of Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.

The streets are different now from prior to 9/11 but 9/11’s streets were different from what went before.  There were even pre-Columbian communities here.  He enters the subway,

“I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stores.  Somewhere close to the water, holding tight to what he knew of life, the boy had, with a sharp clack, again gone aloft.”

5.  Now he remembers his old love (I think).   Nadége is connected to another girl hidden in memory (naturally) for 25 years – the connection was hidden.   Now he only remembers a limp.

Now we know why he’s been thinking about that god  Obatala (see above).

He remembers – going to the Ellis Island detention facility outside of South Jamaica, Queens,  with Nadége and a church affiliated group called the Welcomers which had a barefoot priest since his service in Orinoco area.  This facility is the opposite of the windowed buildings he’s been describing around Manhattan.   He meets a young man from Africa whose case has been denied even on appeal.  They are both Christians.

The man’s name is Saidu,  and he tells 1st about his life experiences in Liberia’s First Civil War and his wandering years after that – it’s a wild tale.   He saw corpses and mutilations.   A Wackenhut guard knocks on door.   1st is a bit skeptical – prays with him,  says he will go back but never does.  Nadége enjoys his story and the idea of 1st as a listener – he does, too.    They apparently got together but “drifted apart.”

Now he meets an old Haitian man,  Pierre,  a “bootblack,”  who tells him his story which is full of the Haitian struggle with its killings. Came to NY  when the family employers came.  Life in NY was rough for some but good for him.  Heard about the Boukman and life in Haiti.   Working for the Bérard’s was wonderful – “like working for God” and Mr. Bérard needed him.  He didn’t even want his “freedom.”  (Why did he have to buy it?  Because Bérard paid for the voyage?)   He met Juliette, his wife – “of blessed memory,”  When Mrs. Bérard died he got his freedom and married.   Deaths from yellow fever.  Donations to Cathedral.

Both of these immigrants are religious,  1st says he’s a Christian.  The old Obatala is a god.

The weather has got cold (much rain earlier) it’s Christmas.  1st sees what looks like a lynching but it turns out to dark canvas “twirling in the wind.”

6.   1st’s past – Nigerian military school (NMS)  in Zaria for discipline.  He was 10 in 1985.  He

Black Mamba snake

sees a black snake – a mamba.   His parents have a rift but seem to make peace – mom is really cold during this time.   She gets past it and loves Nigeria but is not really a part of it – (born in Belgium).   When 1st’s father dies 1st has a sense of pique but never actually blames Mom for Dad’s death.

At the school he learns that not all boys are equal – some are intelligent,  some have authority,  some have money,  etc.  “It was a strange new life.”


Father dies suddenly from TB.  Mom and 1st are stoic but not united – “glances full of dark rooms.”

Aha!  1st’s name is JULIUS!   🙂    Also mentioned on page 12 and on page 20.   Humph!

The name Julius from mom’s side – means Julius is not fully Nigerian.  Mom is blonde!   Mom “decided to take me with her  into her MEMORIES.”   Mom’s story is full of pain, a father who didn’t return from WWII,  mom was probably the child of a German officer raping her.

Julius’ time in school was fairly difficult but he left and went to the US on his own.

Manila declared an open city

Julias takes his vacation to Belgium and chats with a woman seatmate,  a doctor who tells him about Belgium during WWII.   Gets a bit off topic with Baron Empain and his son Jean who was kidnapped –    He meets his tour guide and thinks of what all has happened to Belgium –  it was an “open city” making it one of several “open cities” and therefore off limits for the bombing.

There had been a protest about violence but particularly about the death of a 17-year old boy at the Gare Centrale (central station) in Brussells.    This happened in April 2006.  Our hero is visiting in 2008.   He tries to find his Oma – no luck.  Calls others.  Strikes up a conversation with the guy at the internet cafe and discovers a Moroccan intellectual who puts down Ben Jelloun and recommends Mohamed Choukri – Jolloun writes like a writer in exile while Choukri writes from his own autodidact experience on the streets of Morocco.  Specifically,  the book For Bread Alone.  These writers have ideas about history.

The conversation switches to Palestinians and differences and wether difference (think all the cripples at the beginning of the book) has inherent worth.   “Whether the difference itself has inherent worth.”    That’s why Farouq would support Malcolm X over Martin Luther King.

Violence seems to be the only way to attract the support of young followers –

9.  He meets a 50-ish woman, blonde, and they have sex in her hotel room.   He goes to the internet cafe to make phone calls – others are there.  Many cultures, many nationalities. Farouq says the difference is the thing –  Americans don’t understand.  The name Fukuyama, another historian,  comes up.  They talk about Muslims.

He wanders the city and meets Farouq for lunch as planned.  He has a friend with him,  Khalil.  They talk a lot of things,  racism,  Americans, Palistine,  leftist politics, communitarianism,

I pretty much stopped this annotation business at page 114 (K) because it was pointless.  I’m not sure this book has a point.   It’s about terrible things happening to everybody – all  non-Europeans anyway.  Julius is half Belgian and half Nigerian – I guess he looks more Nigerian than Belgian because that’s the community he slides into where he goes.

It’s about community – Julius is almost always the outsider but sometimes he gets together with people like himself   What does “outsider” mean –  color,  language,  customs,  history –  all are part of a community.   History is a huge thing – we all have one and our history affects us and the history of our community affects us.  (As Dr. M. says in Belgium –  why do they want to be here if it’s only to condemn us?)

But there is no plot.  Julius  just wanders around New York and Europe –  he’s alone but has a couple friends,  an ex-girlfriend,  an old professor (who dies).   He might be losing his mind – he forgets his ATM pin number.  I don’t know how old he is but could probably figure it out –  I think early 30s.  Julias is a psychiatrist – he’s supposed to heal people – cure the “mad.”

“The waiter, a dead ringer for Obelix, arrived to take our orders: waterzooi for her, veal for me.”  page 141 –

I suspect all the obscure language stuff (above) and earlier references to obscure writers, artists,  music is to put the reader off guard – make him feel a bit of an outsider for not knowing this.   But he is studying affective disorders of the elderly  –

And I HATE this kind of generalization:

Pg 154:
“The mood of Munkácsi’s photographs darkened as the 1920s became the 1930s, and the soccer players and fashion models gave way to the cool tensions of a military state. This story, told countless times, retains its power to quicken the heart; always, one holds out the secret hope that things will turn out differently, and that the record of those years will show wrongs on a scale closer to the rest of human history.”

“… always one holds out the secret hope…”   Yeah?  No.  I know it won’t and so I walk away unless I’m intellectually involved and then I’m observing.   How dare Cole (or Julius) assume he can tell me what I’m doing?  –  oh yeah,  Julius is a shrink so he knows – right?

The trouble is he forgot to make any disclaimers – as he did on page 215:

Prayer was, I had long settled in my mind, no kind of promise, no device for getting what one wanted out of life; it was the mere practice of presence, that was all, a therapy of being present, of giving a name to the heart’s desires, the fully formed ones, the as yet formless ones.”

Maybe it’s about age and mental illness – one or the other or both.  And community or “brotherhood.”

And then,  way back in the book,  80% maybe,  we find out that Julius is guilty of his own crime against humanity.  He never denies it.  He simply does’t remember it.  He’s intellectualizing to forget the emotions?  And he’s a shrink?

Yes,  I suppose if we are “all” guilty then something bad about him as to be there.  It’s a shocker but we have become intimates and now we may be implicit in his crime.  I don’t know.  It affects the whole rest of the book in a very disturbing,  distancing way.

And we never find out about his mother or his grandmother – what happened,  where are they?   Cole runs out of steam and never tells us – just meanders around until it’s time for the big head-thump from an unexpected direction.

I guess I’m going to have to go with an 8.5 – down because of the apparent padding between the half-way mark and the disclosure.

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