Teju Cole’s first novella, “Every Day Is For The Thief,” chronicled a trip to Nigeria broken up with photos, garnering inevitable comparisons to German author W.G. Sebald. Even without the photos, Sebald’s influence can still be felt in Open City’s narrator, Julius, a Nigerian psychiatrist performing his Harlem residency. Julius muses about paintings or historical trivia far more often than he addresses what’s actually before him. Where Sebald forced readers to construct a narrative out of nothing more than thematic tissue, Cole eventually undermines Julius’ reticence with a twist that breaks through his chilly facade: He’s given the expedient identity of an unreliable narrator.
The last-minute revelation of a suppressed past event helps explain a voice whose aloof reserve may annoy readers. But that distanced voice is the book’s great achievement: much of the narrative simply records Julius’ thoughts on art exhibitions, museums, concerts, and reading material. As with Sebald, the topics are esoteric, often exhumed from the forgotten or shamefully overlooked corners of Western history: 17th-century Dutch colonial settler Cornelis van Tienhoven, the portraits of John Brewster, and the novels of Tahar Ben Jelloun all come up for discussion.
Except for a brief trip to Brussels, the setting is mid-’00s Manhattan. Julius is a restless pedestrian and precise observer of the charged city, acutely aware of the racial undercurrents of every daily interaction. Whenever another African immigrant seeks his attention as a fellow brother, he gets uncomfortable. At the post office, a worker addresses him as “Brother Julius” and raps at him; in a bar, a museum guard tries to seduce him. The book’s title echoes the 1945 film Open City, set in occupied Italy, and Cole’s Open City takes place in another kind of war landscape, with lingering echoes of 9/11 everywhere, and every conversation coded. Julius seeks simultaneous escape from and parallels to his daily surroundings.
Given the volatility and potential for hysteria in all these subjects, Cole’s distanced narrator is a boon, refusing to get sucked into rote emotions. All the unbroken high-mindedness can be difficult to keep up with, but it’s worth it. Julius doesn't say much about himself, but he’s an excellent listener. In Brussels, his conversations with an angry Muslim scholar of Deleuze are expertly rendered; at home, he listens to the story of an illegal Liberian immigrant detained for two years. The immigrant testimonies and European art work in counterpoint, forming a compelling spread of conflicting post-9/11 zeitgeists and resonances. Unconvincing twist aside, Open City is lucidly detached in a manner that needs no apologies.