Teju Cole’s Open City (2011, Random House) is this year’s number 2 accomplishment on my reading list. It does definitely count as accomplishment for me, because besides being a rather short book, it took me several weeks to really get into it. Still then, there were moments of severe irritation, about how a book can be at the same time intriguing and boring, offering innovative perspectives on living together in a “multicultural” city and some very conservative remarks about connections between faith and politics. While I liked the anecdotal style in general, and the way the author offers glimpses at so many different life stories connected in the urban space, I was often disappointed by the flatness of the female characters and the oftentimes very self-confident judgements of the protagonist. At some point, the main character’s cosmopolitanism becomes enervating, and it is particularly unclear to me why the author uses nationalities to describe people. While there are page-long discussions between males about Islam, Philosophy and World Politics, female characters mostly serve to literally spice up the story and don’t get many chances to dialogue. There’s one exception however: Dr. Maillotte, an elderly doctor the protagonist meets on a plane to Brussels. A great part of the writing is devoted to descriptions of walking along the streets of either New York or Brussels. Personally, I am not a huge fan of long descriptions of walks and observations of their respective environments. But maybe people familiar with the respective city’s geography find these parts more interesting to read. Spoiler alert: the most surprising part is possibly the confession made by his highschool friend’s older sister about 15 pages before the book ends. After that, you may have gotten to a deeper understanding of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.
How did I come across the book?
A very good friend borrowed it to me before he had to read it himself for a class. I had talked with him about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah – which I loved, and he found OK, and since I am generally very receptive to his recommendations, I gave it a try. Plus, I was interested in broadening my knowledge of Nigerian writers.
When and where did I read it?
I began mid-december on a trip to Berlin, then mostly read it before going to sleep. It took me until early january to really get into reading it, and then took another two weeks to finish.
For my taste, this paragraph sums up pretty well what the book is like:
Instinctively saving a baby, a little happiness; spending time with Rwandans, the ones who survived, a little sadness; the idea of our final anonymity, a little more sadness; sexual desire fulfilled without complication, a little more happiness: and it went on like that, as thought succeeded thought. How petty seemed to me the human condition, that we were subject to this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud. Predictably, the mind noted that judgement, too, and assigned it its place: a little sadness. (p.146)