Saturday, February 25, 2012

Open City

Last night I finished reading Teju Cole's Open City.  I really enjoyed it.  It is narrated in the first person by the main character Julius.  Julius is a medical school resident in psychiatry at a New York hospital and is originally from Nigeria, son of a German mother and a Nigerian father.

Julius is a fairly solitary person, not unhappy in life but not exuberant either.  The novel simply follows him around for an indefinite period of time, recording his encounters with friends and strangers, following his musings, etc.  

What really interested me about Julius was to see how little time he spends thinking about race or his African heritage, and yet how often it colors the way strangers see and interact with him.  When he describes a conversation with a stranger, it would surprise me that towards the end, the stranger would comment that they were both black men.  Julius rarely mentions a person's race in his thoughts, because it isn't noteworthy to him.  But his race and heritage seemed noteworthy to others.  Fellow African immigrants immediately address him as "brother" and want to discuss the homeland.  Julius is never bothered or annoyed by this, but he doesn't share the absorption with race and culture.

There are some really great vignettes in the book.  Some of my favorites are Julius' meeting with a Liberian man inprisoned in an immigration facility awaiting deportation, his brief friendship with a Marxist Muslim Moroccan man in Belgium, his visits with a dying professor who was interned during World War II because he was Japanese American, and a shocking and very sad conversation he has with a woman he knew as a boy in Nigeria.

The biggest success of the book, in my opinion, is that Julius truly feels like a real person, not a character in a novel.  He is as flawed, complex, and interesting as people are in the real world.  I enjoyed living inside his head for a brief time.

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