The Economist reviews Teju Cole’s Open City

By | July 28, 2011

There are three reasons why the book is so compelling, and the quality of translation will be vital if this success is to continue in other languages. In the precision with which Mr Cole chooses words or phrases he is not unlike Gustave Flaubert, who sometimes took a week to write a single paragraph. Thus New York’s horses are “blindered”, its flocks of birds “take auspices” as birds did in Roman times, the traffic on Sixth Avenue “with its rush-hour gladiators testing each other’s limits” are a stark contrast to the quietude of the American Folk Art Museum where Julius first encounters Brewster’s portraits.

Secondly, like the Ethiopian-born writer, Dinaw Mengestu, another African who has become American (and also a rising star), Mr Cole has no time for clichés and generalisations. Julius rails against a film director who thinks that French-speaking Mali and Anglophone Kenya are interchangeable. This is not pedantry, but a quiet insistence that Africans can no longer be lumped together as one. When Julius flies to Europe, it is not to his mother’s homeland, Germany, but to Belgium, a nation with a long and complex history involving Africa. By the time readers follow Julius to Lagos, they no longer see Nigerians as nationally feckless, but as sympathetic, complicated individuals.

Last, and most important, given how contemporary novelists are criticised for repeating the achievements of those gone by rather than adequately portraying the modern world, is that Mr Cole is an original. James Wood, a British critic who teaches at Harvard, is one of a number of reviewers who have singled out Mr Cole’s work. “Open City”, he says, is as close to a diary as a novel can get, an unusual accomplishment for which “a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.” It could so easily have failed. Instead, it is a clear-eyed and mysterious achievement, a modern meditation that is both complex and utterly simple.

The whole review is here.

I agree with the three points. The language of the book is very well thought through. One gets the feeling that only the writer could have written the prose, and that every expression is carefully considered before it is chosen. The other contemporary Nigerian writer whose prose is that personalised is Helon Habila – see his Oil on Water.

My other thought ties in with the last point in the review. With this book, Teju Cole has consolidated what he showed that he could do in his earlier work, the novela Every Day is for the Thief (sadly, the Nigeria-published book is not available on Amazon or anywhere online for that matter). In the book, he showed what could be done with a diary-like style of writing. The style shows itself in the much more mature Open City.

Get the book if you can. And I’ve just ordered Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air.

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