As part of our education in the music of Gustav Mahler, we spoke with the Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole. In his triumphant debut titled Open City in 2011, Teju Cole built his story to a climactic performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony in Carnegie Hall. Teju Cole lives and writes in New York. He’s a bit of a Mahler obsessive who tweets often about his favorite composer. I asked him how Mahler enters the mind and the spirit of a young New Yorker who grew up in West Africa.
Podcast • May 17, 2011
Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States. It’s not just the quick resumé that reminds you of Rana Dasgupta — who was born and educated in England, then returned to his father’s country, India, to write stories and the novel Solo, set in the everywhere/nowhere of Bulgaria. Both writers — friends and mutual admirers, both in their mid-thirties — seem to have undertaken a project without borders. Cole tells me he likes to see himself evaluating a scene, he says, like an detective in a cop show: “What have we got here?” First, he looks; then he starts digging. History is the new geography, even at Ground Zero in Manhattan:
This was not the first erasure on the site… The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased and rewritten. There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portugese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furst and timber of the island and its calm bay. Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories…
The narrator “Julius” at the World Trade Center site, in Open City by Teju Cole. Random House, 2011. p. 59
Teju Cole in conversation is sprightly, almost ecstatically musical, well-read and warm. He spins, riffs, notices and links — much as he does on the page. On an effulgent May afternoon in New York we are sitting on the grass, as it happens, before the brick row houses around Henry James’s Washington Square Park. Talk about palimpsests! And Teju Cole, feeling “more alive than on other days,” is peering through the layers and disguises of the scene, picking out evidences of his “open city” transformed.
What we see is an apparently uncomplicated scene of urban leisure on a Thursday afternoon, but all of this is happening in a historical context, and in the shadow of economic uncertainty… Some of the people are here because they’re out of work. You could say to yourself: New York City is an astonishingly diverse place, but we see around us all kinds of evidence of segregation: white students from NYU, and black women of a certain age working as nannies for white babies. We are looking at the American reality under an overlay of innocence…
This city, like many others, is a space that has been pre-inhabited, that contains the stories of people who are gone, who are vanished. We look at their inscriptions and we engage with their monuments, and we walk along their paths: every time you walk down Broadway, you’re walking along an ancient cattle path that was put down by Native Americans who then had an appalling encounter with European invaders and were more or less wiped out. But we still walk down their roads. And those roads themselves, and many of those buildings, were built by slave labor in this city, by people not only whose lives have been erased from the record, but whose deaths, in a way, have been erased from the record. Only recently was the burial grounds of the slaves rediscovered. And even then, most of that burial ground is covered with office buildings now. There’s this essential mystery of life in the city: it contains others who are not us in the present time — I’m not you and you’re not me, maybe we don’t live in the same neighborhood — but it also contains others who are not us, in the sense that so much of it was made by those others.
Teju Cole with Chris Lydon in Washington Square Park, New York City, May 12, 2011.
Teju Cole is opening up, too, about the music that’s written into Open City — for example, the pattern of “doublings” (as in instrumental voices) of characters and cities, themes and phrases (like the air of a man “who had undertaken long journeys”) that recur in different rhythms and harmonies, so to speak. In particular, Gustav Mahler is another of those “vanished” who inhabit Teju Cole’s present and obsess his character Julius, a psychiatry resident about to start his clinical practice. Mahler (death centennial next year) was himself drawn to the “open city” of New York in a tormented late act of a great composing-conducting career. He was, Cole writes, “the genius of prolonged farewells,” in a long series of “final statements,” up to his unfinished Tenth Symphony.
Mahler’s music flows somewhere under Cole’s elegiac novel — “a story,” he calls it, “of mourning, for the feeling this city carried with itself after 9.11.” But what is it, I wonder, we are still bidding farewell? “It’s as if,” Cole says, “after 9.11 we entered a new phase in the life of this civilization. But I think it was also clear that it was the end of something… There’s a strong goodbye element in this novel, too.” The last chapter of the book, we’re noting, has three endings: one at Carnegie Hall, in a Simon Rattle performance of Mahler’s Ninth; another in a view of the stars over Manhattan; the last in a harbor-cruise view of the Statue of Liberty.
There are two “open cities,” it turns out, in Teju Cole’s novel. Julius travels in search of his German mother to Belgium. Brussels is the city which gave Hitler’s troops free passage in World War II and preserved its medieval design but which, by 2006, is half-paralyzed by dread of Muslim immigrants. Brussels is where Julius meets his own double, a Moroccan Islamist of “seething intelligence,” a phone-store clerk who wants to be Edward Said when he grows up. And then there is Brussels’ “double,” New York, open to the deadbeat and the driven, thriving on perpetual renewal, and “saturated with the ominous energies” of its inherited past.
But then a student delighted Teju Cole on a school visit with the thought that his invention Julius — a solitary walker and cool, catalytic conversationalist with a stunning variety of New Yorkers — is himself the Open City.
Teju Cole’s last word with us — very much in that Open City spirit — was about the work ahead: first, a non-fiction account of Lagos (another “doubling,” it seems, of Rana Dasgupta’s work in progress on New Delhi) and then another novel:
“It’s simmering very softly below the surface. I don’t know what it’ll be. I don’t know where it’ll go. But I am going to have to confront Ulysses. We can’t keep pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t keep writing 19th Century novels, you know. We can’t pretend that that amazing unexploded ordnance of a book did not happen.” On the other side of Washington Square Park we hear sounds of kids cheering. “And in the far distance,” Teju Cole closed, as if on cue, “people applaud that idea. So I take it as a sign from the gods.”