The narrator of “Open City,” Julius, is in his final year of a psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian, and the book covers roughly a year, between the fall of 2006 and the late summer of 2007. He is around thirty, and tells us that he came to America as a university student. He is estranged from his German-born mother; his father died when he was fourteen. But these personal details are withheld over many pages, and only very gradually sifted into the narrative. They finally arrive at a curious angle, so that we always feel, not unpleasantly, that the book began before we started it. We learn about Julius’s being African, for instance, by following clues: first of all, he discusses Yoruba cosmology; then he goes to see the film “The Last King of Scotland,” and mentions that “I knew Idi Amin well, so to speak, because he’d been an indelible part of my childhood mythology.” On the next page, he mentions that he was a medical student in Madison, Wisconsin, and recalls an uncomfortable dinner experience there, when an Indian-Ugandan doctor, forced to flee the country by Idi Amin, announced to his guests that “when I think about Africans I want to spit”: “The bitterness was startling. It was an anger that, I couldn’t help feeling, was partly directed at me, the only other African in the room. The detail of my background, that I was Nigerian, made no difference, for Dr. Gupta had spoken of Africans.” After thirty or so pages, we have discovered that Julius is Nigerian, but only by indirection. There is an interesting combination of confession and reticence about Julius, and about how he sees the world, and, insofar as the novel has a story, this enigma of an illuminated shadow is it—which turns out to be all we need.
I’ve been waiting for this book since I listened to Teju Cole on BBC’s The Forum (you can listen to it here). My copy is already in the mail.