No doubt, Teju Cole doesn’t have Chimamanda Adichie’s kind of fame, so almost every time that I discuss him, the usual question is – who is Teju Cole? A little introduction, Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer, photographer, and art historian. He’s one of those currently flying Nigeria’s flag in the literary world. I put him in the same class with Chimamamda Adichie and Sefi Attah. Although he seems the least popular of the three but he rightfully belongs to that class because the three keep the world conscious of the fact that the country that produced Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka still produces fine writers.
At this point, one might be tempted to ask why it is that almost all (if not all) the internationally acclaimed best selling Nigerian writers aren’t based in Nigeria. In my honest opinion, I think it boils down to two things – education and exposure. We really do not need to belabour ourselves with the deplorable state of Nigeria’s educational system. On exposure, Teju Cole himself is a good illustration of that. His first novella, Everyday is for the thief was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and failed to draw the world’s attention. It took Random House’s re-publishing of the book for it to receive accolades to the point of being referred to as – arguably the best book about contemporary Lagos published in the past decade. It might be apposite to share how The Independent put it – Nigerians seem to have to leave the country and establish themselves outside its phantasmagoria of moral despair before their voices can gain any kind of authority.
We live in a time of peace, relatively, and so the first question the book Open City might throw at us is – what is an open city? According to wikipedia,
In war, in the event of the imminent capture of a city, the government/military structure of the nation that controls the city will sometimes declare it an open city, thus announcing that they have abandoned all defensive efforts. The attacking armies of the opposing military will then be expected not to bomb or otherwise attack the city, but simply to march in. The concept aims at protecting the historic landmarks and civilians who dwell in the city from an unnecessary battle. The only time we come across the word ‘open city’ in the book is when Julius makes a visit to Brussels and informs us that Brussels was declared an open city during the second world war.
I got to know of Teju Cole on twitter through his now rested tweets code-named small fates. Small fates was Cole’s way of compressing news items into twitter’s 160-letter limit while exploiting wit, dark humour and sarcasm. Here is an example of a small fate –
“Not far from the Surulere workshop where spray-painter Alawiye worked, a policeman fired into the air. Gravity did the rest.” ( @tejucole 8:57am, 3/20/12)
Open city is the story of Julius, who shares certain similarities with Cole himself (e.g age and migration to the US from Nigeria), as he walks through New York (and shortly, Brussels), and meets a wide range of people. One striking thing about the book is Cole’s brilliance. Cole took us through the labyrinth of his own mind and the several components therein. Through Julius, Cole discusses social and critical theory, art, music and books with details and recollection fit for a master virtuoso.
Open city is not your everyday idea of a novel. At first it didn’t strike me like a book I would love to read but I kept at it because it is a book I have been looking forward to read since 2012. Cole began to catch my interest as he shares his boarding school experience at the Nigerian Military School, Zaria which is similar to my own experience in FGC Ikirun.
An exceptionally brilliant book with almost no flaw. The only flaw I noticed was in the narration of Julius’ excursion to the interior of Yorubaland. I’m unable to fathom how Julius and his family was able to tour the Deji’s palace in Akure, the Ooni’s in Ife, the Ikogosi Warm Springs and the Olumo Rock in one trip. That seems to me like biting more that one mouthful.
A plus for the book, in my opinion, is Cole’s ability to give a superb delivery without devoting great attention to sex. In the age of fifty shades, the book unbelievably avoids sex except for a one night stand Julius had in Brussels. Despite this, the book can’t be said to bore.
What more can I say about the book that Time picked as one of the top ten novels of 2011. It sure is a good book to get and to read.
I am @seunalade