Open City

785f8da4-b3dd-11e0-8339-00144feabdc0 Pankaj Mishra reviews Teju Cole’s novel Open City, in The Financial Times:

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.