Early in the history of the modern city, Baudelaire established, with his prose and poems about Paris, the figure of the flâneur: the peripatetic recorder of the bewildering metropolitan spectacle. Baudelaire also identified the flâneur’s natural recording instrument: “a poetic prose, musical, yet without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and jarring enough to be adapted to the soul’s lyrical movements, the undulations of reverie, to the sudden leaps of consciousness”.
Long after Baudelaire’s mid-19th-century vision, the flâneur tended to be an alienated bourgeois gentleman – such as the conservative Polish-Jewish protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Mr Sammler’s Planet, who walks around New York berating the city for being far too open to non-European influences. Mass global immigration has now produced another, more resourceful and cosmopolitan outsider: Julius, the flâneur-narrator of Teju Cole’s novel Open City, who is a half-Nigerian, half-German psychiatrist living in New York.
Julius’s narrative, which is held together by subtle perceptions rather than plot or strong characterisations, evokes his memories of Nigeria as well as describing his walks in New York (and Brussels, which he briefly visits). The flâneur’s prose, Baudelaire wrote, “is born, above all, from the experience of giant cities, from the intersecting of their myriad relations”. Cole fully exploits this potential for discursiveness in his narrator’s serendipitous encounters in New York.
A disabled person on a subway sparks in Julius reflections ranging from the Yoruba creation myth and the destruction of Native American culture to the brutalities of Idi Amin. Whether commenting on the slave burial ground in lower Manhattan, the streets erased during the construction of the World Trade Center, or a statue in Chinatown of a 19th-century Chinese official, Julius never ceases to bring to light the secret interconnections in a global history of violence and pain.
Knowledgeable about contemporary literary and political theory, Julius seems the black intellectual from hell for Bellow’s Mr Sammler. Yet Julius is wholly unlike the Indian professor Malik Solanka in Fury, Salman Rushdie’s flâneur novel about New York; he seems uninterested in the American possibility of radical self-invention, the “benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over”.
Refreshingly, he perceives his adopted city from no ideological predisposition. His coolly ironic psychologising brings to mind the bourgeois sages of Vienna (Freud and Musil) rather than the radicals of North Africa (Frantz Fanon and Edward Said). He listens carefully to the ordeals of a Liberian refugee in a detention centre in Queens. At the same time, he is aware that he loves too much the idea of being “the compassionate African who paid attention to the details of someone else’s life and struggle”. “Distrustful of causes,” he proclaims a Naipaulean aloofness from aggressively political fellow immigrants.
He also jumps unabashedly from one subject to another – image to disquisition, conversation to reverie. But Julius’s observations on paintings, music, cinema and politics do not consistently rise, as they should, above the level of arts criticism and op-ed commentary in the liberal periodicals. His autodidact’s eager preciosity can exasperate: Chinese musicians in a park, for instance, make Julius think “of Li Po and Wang Wei, of Harry Partch’s pitch-bending songs, and of Judith Weir’s opera The Consolations of Scholarship”. Cole’s prose seems too self-consciously refined, even stately, to achieve the Blakean feat of making thoughts appear as sensations; and it doesn’t always support the novel’s over-arching theme: the slipperiness of memory, the vagaries of an ever-shifting mental climate (what Julius calls “this endless being tossed about like a cloud”), and the deceptions of self-knowledge.
For, to his own self, Julius remains untrue, despite his uncovering of other people’s ideological deceits and intellectual dishonesty. “Each person must,” he writes, “on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him.” But the assumption turns out to be false. Relentlessly excavating the violent histories of New York, Julius is suddenly exposed to a horrible crime in his own Nigerian past.
“Things don’t go away,” his accuser tells him, “just because you choose to forget them.” Julius says nothing, pedantically thinking of Nietzsche at that very moment, which ends as inconclusively as many other fraught occasions in the book. A few pages later this agreeably strange and suggestive novel abruptly ends with another fragment of urban history: how the flame from the torch of the Statue of Liberty, America’s biggest lighthouse until 1902, “fatally disoriented” birds, killing hundreds of them.
The resonant fact is one of the paired images and ideas that make up the hidden architecture of Open City, which opens with Julius watching bird migrations from his apartment. Like the poor creatures drawn moth-like to the Statue of Liberty’s flame, Julius, too, has lost his bearings in the world capital of modernity. Or so we think: first-person narrators are rarely more unreliable than Julius. Still, there is something beguiling about this very articulate flâneur picking his way through the snares of consciousness – the “ultimate hero of modernity”, who, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “seeks to give voice to its paradoxes and illusions, who participates in, while yet still retaining the capacity to give form to, the fragmented, fleeting experiences of the modern”.
Pankaj Mishra is author of ‘The Romantics: A Novel’ (Picador) and ‘Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet’ (Picador)
Open City, by Teju Cole, Faber, RRP£12.99, 272 pages