Photo of Paris by Teju Cole

Photo of Paris by Teju Cole

The post-national writer, in all its manifestations, is the most interesting and fruitful thing to have happened to world literature since the birth of modernism. It’s safe to say this will be the literary hallmark of the new century, with the internet its Gutenberg. And post-nationalism itself is a sign of hope. After centuries of barbarity, a Union in Europe only became possible when it was harder to define who was French or German or Italian or Dutch. We can imagine what the world would be like if only Americans would become post-American.
Eliot Weinberger, 2005

I can think of no greater exemplar of post-national literature than Teju Cole’s first novel, Open City. It is European in structure and theory, American in its candor, and Nigerian in its attention to detail. But it transcends all of these national labels. As Cole has written elsewhere:

I write all this from multiple positions. I write as an African, a black man living in America. I am every day subject to the many microaggressions of American racism. I also write this as an American, enjoying the many privileges that the American passport affords and that residence in this country makes possible. I involve myself in this critique of privilege: my own privileges of class, gender, and sexuality are insufficiently examined.

Little happens in this novel. It doesn’t tell a story; it evokes a mood. A slow, reflective mood under grey skies and always near forgotten monuments. As Cole has cheekily described his fiction writing, “I try to move at such a slow pace that if you have trouble sleeping, it will knock you out.” But it doesn’t. You always want to read on. Many nights I left my reading lamp on past one in the morning. It’s not that I was waiting for something to happen; rather, I was soaking in the mood of the novel in the same way one might soak in the winter sun passing through an apartment window.

This book provoked a great sense of nostalgia for a former me, or at least my current perception of a past version of myself, more curious and astute. Like Cole, I too took time to reflect on the spaces and relationships that filled my days, the curious situations and the slow trajectories that gave them shape.

“You’re so observant,” was the compliment that most filled me with pride. But observance is little more than the manifestation of curiosity, and I once struggled to understand those who were not curious. Who wouldn’t stare endlessly at a map, tracing with one’s fingers the rivers and mountain ranges? Who wouldn’t take the time to visit the local history museum to learn the past that unfolded underneath our feet? Who wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger to momentarily see the world through his or her eyes?

Like Julius, the narrator of Open City, I used to do all of these things; I lived to do all of these things. But as the years have gone by, my curiosity has diminished. A combination of Open City and new year’s resolutions has inspired me to once again cultivate my curiosity, document my observations, and saunter at least once a week.

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