Open City by Teju Cole
When I was thirteen I worked at the concession stand of a summer film festival showing old movies. For some movies I would sneak in once the film started and watch the whole thing, sometimes again and again if it was really good, like The Philadelphia Story. When Roberto Rosselini’s Rome, Open City was shown, my mother, a committed Italo-phile, attended every showing. After each show, she’d reemerge from the theater wiping her tear-streaked face with the back of her hand. I never went inside the theater for that movie, and instead slouched irritably at the counter in the sundress my mother had sewn for me from fabric of such a shade of yellow that it would not show the stains of Tastee Pop, the butter substitute we squirted into the popcorn.
Recently, after reading Teju Cole’s new novel Open City, I decided to watch Rosselini’s film for the first time. In war, cities that face imminent attack may be declared "open," which means that no resistance will be mounted to stave off the attackers. By declaring a city open it is hoped that casualties will be limited and historical landmarks will be spared. Rome was declared an open city on August 14, 1943, and the film Rome, Open City takes place during that time period, when the Nazis have taken control and are attempting to quash an underground resistance movement. The film is a melodrama with an unrelentingly depressing storyline. I could chart the onset of my mother’s weeping to when a pregnant Anna Magnani crashes to the ground with an agonizing cry, cut down senselessly by a Nazi bullet. By the time the credits begin rolling by to a haunting melody, and Magnani’s young son, now orphaned, has just watched his family priest die at the hands of a firing squad, my mother’s catharsis would have been complete.
Teju Cole’s Open City is neither a melodrama, nor is it about a city that has technically been declared "open" during wartime. The novel is set in New York City, no more than a couple of years ago, and narrated by a Nigerian psychiatrist on a research fellowship. Throughout the novel, the psychiatrist, Julius, wanders the streets of the city taking careful note of everything he sees, and everyone with whom he interacts. His observations are recorded in beautifully clear prose with the precision of a clinician, or at least the way one might wish to imagine the precision of a clinician. The descriptions of the cityscape around him are interspersed with memories of his boyhood in Nigeria. His time in New York is interrupted by a trip to Brussels which Julius takes using up his entire four week vacation time, in the vague, unrealized hope of somehow encountering his grandmother there. He is, however, unsure as to whether she is still alive, or even if she lives there at all. Without a clear plan to find her, he continues his habit of wandering, observing, interacting, recording.
In 1940, Brussels was declared an open city, a fact our narrator mentions during his trip there. As he observes:
Had Brussels’s rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment during the Second World War, it might have been reduced to rubble. It might have been another Dresden. As it was, it had remained a vision of the medieval and baroque periods, a vista interrupted only by the architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II in the late nineteenth century.
Brussels serves as a point of comparison with New York for the narrator. It is New York, not Brussels, that is the open city to which the title refers, and in keeping with the naunced writing of the novel, I took the term to have multiple referents: the constant and steady streams of immigration that have always made up the population of the city; the diversity of its architecture and neighborhoods; and finally, its status as a city with a major landmark that has been bombed in an act of war.
It is reductionist to call Open City "a post-9/11" novel, but there is an element of its spirit that must be defined by its historical relation to that event. On a particular day of wandering through the city, Julius happens through an alleyway (“no one’s preferred route to any destination”), walks down some other streets, when, he reports:
He keeps walking, and then from the West Side Highway:
...I saw to my right, about a block north of where I stood, a great empty space. I immediately thought of the obvious but, equally quickly, put the idea out of my mind.
The taillights of cars were chased by their red reflections towards the bridges out of the island, and to the right, there was a pedestrian overpass connecting one building not to another, but to the ground. And again, the empty space that was. I now saw, and admitted, the obvious: the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Reflecting on this blank spot in the natural crowding of the city’s landscape, and examining it from more than one angle (with continued observations and conversations on topics other than the missing landmarks interspersed), Julius ends by musing on the layered history of this piece of land. Listing the multiple waves of immigrants, of streets and buildings that had existed in this spot before and been removed, he concludes:
The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten... Generations rushed 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.
As a narrator, Julius is aloof, exact, learned and a little bit chilly. His need to find that line that connects him is real, because for all his powers of observation, he construes himself as an outsider and impartial observer in all things, including his own history. But there are threads that connect him to the city and to the people in the city, some of which prove to be less than pleasant. Though he is not entirely able to see his own part in the melodrama of a wartime city, he too plays a role.
The review materials I received with Open City ask me to compare Cole’s writing to that of W.G. Sebald or J.M. Coetzee. I was instead reminded of Wharton and James, of their pacing, of their detailed descriptions of place, history and person and of their slightly god-like distance from their characters and subjects. I read in Open City a kind of sequel to Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: the writing style, similarly precise and clear; the city, even less innocent than it was then. Cole, who is also a photographer and an art historian, has an enviable ability to take a subject, say, the city of New York, and turn it inside out and upside down, shake it out, and examine the contents, then pack it up again. In this, his writing resembles his photography, which, unlike most urban photography, manages to find grand vistas and great heights in the claustrophobic clutter of a city landscape. In a photograph such as this one, a bird’s eye view of what appears to be the interior of a multi-storied shopping mall becomes a delicate abstraction, the suspended star-shaped lights an orderly arrangement of origami, the tiny shoppers, so many ants dotting the background. I was reminded of a passage near the end of Open City, when Julius exits a concert at Carnegie Hall, not realizing he has stepped out on a vertiginously constructed metal fire escape. After a hair-raising climb down a few flights, he finds a door which opens back into the concert hall:
Before I entered the door, holding it open with relief and gratitude, it occurred to me to look straight up, and much to my surprise, there were stars. Stars! I hadn’t thought I would be able to see them, not with the light pollution perpetually wreathing the city, and not on a night on which it had been raining. But the rain had stopped while I was climbing down, and had washed the air clean. The miasma of Manhattan’s electric lights did not go very far up into the sky, and in the moonless night, the sky was like a roof shot through with light, and heaven itself shimmered. Wonderful stars, a distant cloud of fireflies: but I felt in my body what my eyes could not grasp, which was that the true nature was the persisting visual echo of something that was already in the past. In the unfathomable ages it took for light to cross such distances, the light source itself had in some cases been long extinguished, its dark remains stretched away from us at ever greater speeds.
This weighty moment in the history of a city, its days and nights, its landmarks and its inhabitants buzz exquisitely, so many fireflies trapped under the glass of Cole’s crystalline prose.
Open City by Teju Cole