Open City by Teju Cole

My  very first impressions on Open City:

Very strange story. If I can call it a story, I am not really sure. It’s more a reflection on identity (Julius, the protagonist is half Nigerian, half German), an unusual amount of historical facts that sometimes relate, but most of the time don’t seem to fit in . The most surprising thing is that the ensemble makes sense somehow, which is strange in itself. I connect with the story when Julius was in Brussels, the rest of the time I was sort of floating between  pages, not asking too many questions while expecting to somehow get my answers before the end of the novel.

Now, Instead of telling you in great details what I think of Open City. I have decided to discuss other people’s reviews . Usually, I read reviews after I finished the book, Not Before. That being said, I have chosen to discuss small excerpts of the following reviews: the New Yorker, Le monde Livres, The guardian and The Africa book club.

About the author

Teju Cole is a  Writer, art historian, photographer, Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. Born in the US (1975) to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria. Lives in Brooklyn. Author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Internationaler Literaturpreis, and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature. Contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker, Qarrtsiluni, the Atlantic, Granta, Aperture, Transition, A Public Space, etc. Contributing editor at the New Inquiry. Currently at work on a book-length non-fiction narrative of Lagos. Photography exhibited in Panjim, Goa and Ithaca, New York.

About the novel

Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor doing his residency wanders aimlessly. The walks meet a need for Julius: they are a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and they give him the opportunity to process his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past. But it is not only a physical landscape he covers; Julius crisscrosses social territory as well, encountering people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.


The Reviews

Le monde Livres

After 350 pages, Julius is almost as elusive as in the first paragraph when he comes to deliver thoughts, memories, anecdotes whose strength and intimacy are undeniable. (Translated in English by yours truly).

I more than agree with this statement. Till this day, I don’t feel like I understand Julius.

In fact, the walker fades before the city that he surveys. Surveyor of large and small stories, he tried to put himself at the forefront (at the risk of getting beat up here, insult or humiliate elsewhere) but it is always New York with its colors and lines that is the most accurate. He retells the stories of generations and strata, people and plans. The Brussels chapter is also essential in this respect, because it is a point of comparison. Because the history of the Belgian capital is not the same: older in the manner of the European cities, more limited, more closed too. (Translated in English by yours truly).

Exactly! Is this novel about Julius or about the city of New-York? I agree with this reviewer that New-york  was indeed at the forefront of the novel , even when the story moved to Brussels. It was very confusing for me. I was battling not to fall asleep when Julius was describing the streets and New-york’s landscapes. While reading this book, one must be very attentive, because facts are revealed not in the usual way of someone telling a story. They are buried between Julius thoughts on New-York’s  people and buildings. You can’t really afford to be distracted at the risk of loosing an important morsel.

The New Yorker

Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.

hum…Indeed! I wish they had thought of people who didn’t study literature a.k.a me ( I am a simple banker-o all I know is financial markets ). But I am happy that Teju cole succeeded where others have failed.

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.

Exactly! very well summarize. Also, it ties up very well to what “Le monde Livres” said about having a lot of details about Julius but not really knowing him (see previous section).

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.

When I said this novel is very strange, this is what I meant. This reviewer captured very well the complexity of Julius character. Everything seems  to be embedded into something that the reader must figure out himself.

The guardian

Julius is an American psychiatrist training in Manhattan. Of German and Nigerian extraction, he is rootless in New York. Entranced by the city, he is anxious not to fetishise his outsider status. He is also on the rebound from a relationship. These states of mind connect with walks that he makes across the urban grid, now for a purpose, now aimlessly.

Along with seemingly profound reflections on cultural forms, descriptions of these walks constitute most of Open City….

Indeed…you will find a lot of descriptions. Even his reflections are really descriptions of places, people and buildings. I must confess it can get boring. I am in favour of storytelling the usual way. But I guess nobody ask me (LoL!)

Breaking through the anonymity of the crowd, Julius has encounters with strangers, acquaintances and friends. These include Moji, a woman he knew as a girl in Nigeria, but had forgotten, or chosen to forget. He remembers his time in the Nigerian Military School, goes to Brussels, has sex with a middle-aged Czech woman there, comes back, has a picnic, gets mugged….

I remember saying that a lot of parts of the novel don’t seem to fit together. Perfect example. They fit but not in the usual way.

These are the limits of being open. The book’s title comes from the declaration by defenders, in the event of imminent capture, that a city is “open” and the enemy can march in. Reading Open City, it is important to bear the title in mind, and not become impaled on fixed ideas about what kind of person Julius is. Otherwise one might assume that his contemplations should be taken at face value.

For once, I wish I had read this review before starting on the book. It would have saved me a lot of energy. I was really trying to link everything together.I had a hard time. They don’t link or at least not in the way I thought they would.

Negative space (the space between forms or around utterances) is key. We are disposed to read Julius’s reflections for their so-called content, whereas we do better to read them in relief, for what they say about him. This is the real juice. We have to work hard to get it, searching in the gaps for what Julius calls “a double story”. At the same time, it’s in the nature of language and experience that the totality will elude us.

Again, I really wish I had read this before starting on Open City. I work very hard to get the “real juice” and I am not even sure  I succeeded.  The part of the novel that was the closest to what I am used to was Julius time in Brussels. There, he discusses with a Moroccan immigrant about immigration in Europe, identity, muslims versus jewish, racism, America’s multicultural set-up and race.

 The Africa book club

At times, Julius describes his environment with photographic clarity and precision, at others he blurs his vision, and looking into his own “mind’s eye”, delves deep into thought and memory: reflecting on historical events, his personal life, music, philosophy, literature and politics…”.

Exactly! Remember when I said you have to be focus, otherwise you will lose a very important detail about his life just because it is buried in the description of a group of chinese women dancing. In fact, these two sentences describe very well the entire novel. What is real? What is not?

What evolves as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the narration and the narrator’s mind is much more than another “stream-of-consciousness” story or another literary introduction to New York City and some of its illustrious people… Cole’s book is a compelling example of “memory and reality merging into one”: part city portrait, real and imagined, part journey into history and personal life, part reflection on events of our time, fused with insightful recollections on people he encounters and their perspectives on life in all its facets.

Nothing more to add. Well said. 

Teju Cole’s book is exquisitely written, descriptive and imaginative: brilliant in many ways. But don’t look for plot or straight forward narration. Go with the flow of the walks, and you get carried by their rhythms, follow this senses and thoughts. Do you need to know NYC to enjoy the walks with Julius? Not really, although, having walked along some of the streets and places, I feel motivated to return, book in hand.

This book is different from any prior work I have read. Just for that reason, one must read it. It is also different from what African writers usually produce. So, in a way, it defies stereotypes. African writers must refuse to be confined in a certain category or genre.

Dear reader, you have in this very post an unusual amount of  opinions on Open City. So I will let you decide for yourself, if you are going to read it or not. Don’t forget to let me know what you think on the comment box.


  1. I started reading this book a couple of years ago, got to page 38 (I think), then put it down. I have not picked it up since…Nuff said! 🙂 However, I might re-consider – one never knows. Thanks for the posting, as it was informative, and shared many of my sentiments towards the book.

  2. I started reading this book a couple of years ago, got to page 38 (I think), then put it down. I have not picked it up since…Nuff said! 🙂 However, I might re-consider – one never knows. Thanks for the posting, as it was informative, and shared many of my sentiments towards the book.

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