Shelley Ettinger's Reviews > Open City

Open City by Teju Cole
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Feb 28, 2012

really liked it

The star system is utterly unsuited to recording my very mixed reactions to this book. I settled on four because it is beautifully written, so finely crafted, so variously evocative, that it would be churlish to notch it any lower. And there is much of worth here, in my opinion. Everyone comments on this book's stylistic similarity to W.G. Sebald's work, and that popped out at me too, but I think Open City is in many ways a corrective to Sebald, specifically to The Rings of Saturn, specifically on the topic of Belgium. In fact, I can't think of any other reason why Cole has his protagonist travel to Brussels than this. Sebald wrote of Brussels as a monument to colonialist horrors, the racist genocidal depredations of King Leopold against the Congo, and this was good and this was right and Cole too notes same. But Cole does what Sebald never did, that is, he not only views Brussels as a reflection of its old crimes, he also depicts the present reality of the city in all its anti-immigrant racism against North African and Arab residents. Cole not only says 'here is what was' but 'here is what is,' 'here are Europe's current crimes.'

Unfortunately it's also in the Brussels section that Cole writes passages that epitomize what seems to me to be the flip side of the book. On the one hand there is, here and throughout the book's predominant NYC passages, much social commentary, low-volume though it is, much observation of inequity, inequality, oppression, exploitation, pain and suffering. On the other hand, there is throughout a generalized, and in the Brussels section a specifically stated, anti-struggle ethos. The main character's inwardly-soliloquized response to the (IMO) thoroughly justified and well articulated political views of two Muslim men he has dinner with one night is to recoil against any tendency toward action or activism or mass organized resistance, to equate action of the left with action of the right, to virtually pathologize it, psychiatrist that he is. He finds his dinner mates' political views understandable but the idea that they or anyone might actually do something, take action to try to make things right he deems highly distasteful as well as delusional and dangerous. Thus here, and ultimately throughout, we're offered a lovely, literary, lilting, elegiac meditation on the permanent unchangeable solitary symphony of sorrow that is human life on earth--an argument, in other words, against the possibility of struggle or change.
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