A tale of two debuts
Praise for Teju Cole’s Open City (Faber), published earlier this year in the United States, has been resounding. British writer Hari Kunzru wrote that “if Baudelaire was a young African, wandering the streets of contemporary New York, this is the book he’d write”.
The New Yorker‘s critic, James Wood, described it as a “beautiful, subtle — and original novel”, and the New York Times described it as an “indelible debut”.
When Open City came out months ago, I made inquiries about it and was told it would take a few months for the novel to become available in South Africa.
An astute watcher of the African literary scene told me months ago that, in fact, it was not Cole’s debut—that there was another “debut” that came out a few years ago in Nigeria.
Then one day I was looking through my “to read” books and discovered one by Cole called Every Day Is for the Thief, published in 2007 by Cassava Republic, one of Nigeria’s better-run publishing enterprises. I remembered that I got it from Bibi Bakare-Yusuf when she was in South Africa for the Cape Town Book Fair last year. Bakare-Yusuf, a small, tenacious woman, runs Cassava Republic.
The meditations of very intelligent persons
Two debuts by the same Teju Cole, both New York-based Nigerians, both into photography— was this a strange case of a shared identity?
The two Teju Coles write in similar styles; and they both love to go on long walks in the city, usually with a camera or with the camera’s propensity for detail, observing its intricacies and oddities. Both writers use a highly efficient literary, sparse style of writing (think of those two writers known to the world by their initials—WG Sebald and JM Coetzee). The style is a cross between diary, log and journal (what’s the difference?), the meditations of very intelligent persons. Oh, and the narrators of both books are of mixed blood and are estranged from their mothers.
Anyway, let me start with Open City, Cole’s debut in the West. It features Julius, a medical doctor, in his final year of a residency in psychiatry, who wanders the streets of New York after work. “And so I began to go on evening walks last fall —” the novel begins, setting the tone of how New York City “worked itself into my life at walking pace”. As you would expect of a book written, as it were, on the walk, it is a mishmash of ruminations, historical anecdotes about the city itself and some of its residents, chance encounters with fascinating strangers, random observations and snatches of his Nigerian past that are mixed with his New York present.
Some of his observations are teased out, given context; some are not, half-explained, allowing them to grow luxuriantly in the mind of the reader.
The nature of the book gives us sneak previews, as it were, into characters—both fictional and non-fictional—that perhaps over a full novel would be tiring. Thus, over a few pages we encounter characters like a Native American scholar, a patient of Julius, who bemoans living in a country that “has erased your past”, and a retired literary scholar who is close to death from whom Julius learnt “the art of listening — the ability to trace out a story from what was omitted”. It’s obvious that that is a skill the narrator expects us to have.
Even though he knows the city, as in the cliché, like the back of his hand, a woman dies in the flat next to his and he doesn’t know about it until weeks later. “A woman had died in the room next to mine — and I had known nothing of it. I had known nothing in the weeks when her husband mourned, nothing when I had nodded to him in greeting with headphones in my ears —”
Afloat in the world
Although the book allows us fascinating insights into some of the fascinating people he meets (here I am thinking of Farouq, a Moroccan resident in Belgium), the narrator’s account is a prism through which he tries to decipher the meaning of a Nigerian afloat in the world.
While taking a Christmas holiday in Belgium (where his maternal grandmother might be living), Julius encounters Farouq in an internet shop where the latter worked. When they first meet, Farouq is reading Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History. Farouq switches from English to French and Arabic with ease. The Moroccan’s analyses are sharp and delivered without that declamatory air that one finds tiring in some clever people. Farouq’s criticism of his compatriot, novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, is classic.
The novelist, Farouq argues, “writes out of a certain idea of Morocco”, adding: “His writing is myth-making. It isn’t connected to people’s real lives.”
Later they meet in a bar where Farouq tells Julius, rather immodestly: “In my opinion, the Palestinian question is the central question of our time.” The question one asks after this stand-out encounter is: What is this man doing in an anonymous internet shop in a rundown part of Brussels? Shouldn’t he be in a university somewhere?
There is so much to like about Open City, which is certainly one of the best books I have read this year.
Walking the city
Let me rush on to the other debut, Every Day Is for the Thief, which begins while the Nigerian-American narrator is at the Nigerian consulate, applying for a passport. “Help us fight corruption. If any employee of the Consulate asks you for a bribe or tip, please have a discreet word with the Consul General,” a notice announces.
The narrator of this novel is going back to Lagos after more than a decade of living in the United States. The bribe rituals he went through at the consulate in the US are the same he endures as soon as he gets off the plane in Lagos. “What have you brought for me for Christmas[?]” a bureaucrat asks. It’s a line, in its countless permutations, that is going to be repeated during the few months that he spends in his native country.
Like the narrator of Open City, this novel’s narrator loves walking the city, breathing in its exhaust fumes emanating from the diesel generators. He finds that Lagos is a “city of Sheherazades”, a place where “stories unfold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in the myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded”.
In the city’s internet cafés, he doesn’t meet a Walter Benjamin-quoting philosopher. Who he meets are some of the country’s foremost fictioneers, the 419 scammers, composing letters about vast petroleum riches that must be shared, if only you respond to their emails.
A way of being
His family doesn’t want him to use public transport (one of his aunts hasn’t been on a bus in 25 years) but, as he wants to know the city of his childhood, the only way he can do so is by becoming one with its public transport system. For “the energies of Lagos life—creative, malevolent and ambiguous—converge at the bus stops”, he observes. At the bus terminals he meets the touts, boisterous, with “chests puffed out”, ever willing “to get into a fight over any and all conflicts”. He realises that “touting is not a job. It is a way of being in the world.”
As he walks the city, he realises that he has to assume the tout’s swagger, for any sign of uncertainty is bound to attract someone who thinks he can take chances with you.
The figure of the tout is everywhere—in the government, on the road, at the marketplace, even in church, where he is attired in silk suits.
As he traverses the city, he realises that, although Nigeria’s leaders once monopolised oppressing the country’s citizens, now it is likely to be your fellow citizen.
But there are centres of excellence, to be sure, places in which that famed Nigerian enterprise is on display. These centres invariably exclude “the Nigerian government, that great bungler”. This is a diary of Lagos by someone who loves Nigeria (I am avoiding that often misused word “patriotic”), critical but compassionate, detached but intimate.
A second first impression
In one of Julius’s conversations with Farouq, when the Moroccan tells Julius about his reservations about Ben Jelloun, the narrator writes: “He wasn’t saying that Ben Jelloun pandered to Western publishers exactly —”
I noted, in the margins of the above quote, that Cole, by insisting on Open City as his debut, could be seen by some to be pandering to the whims of Western publishers who want to be credited with “discovering” him.
Anyway, if you get to read the more accomplished Open City, it’s only logical that you should read Every Day Is for the Thief, the novel in which Cole tried out some of the things that work to brilliant effect in his second book.