Saturday 31 December 2011

‘Open City’ is…Julius

·         Reviewing Teju Cole's Open City

Open City is more than a book of one purpose streamlined plot and a contrived theme setting; it is further broader than that. With its loosed plot, there is really no story in the mainstream sense. The book is deep with intelligences meeting at different mental ports of the main character's emotional reflexes, intellectual recounts, aimless personal wanderings and physical social interactions. There are allusions of great intellectual stimulations flying off at each page. An important note to prospective readers of this book would be; Open City does not patronize details to you with end to end interruptive annotations of where you may have been confused; it really doesn't. That is one thing I admire about the way the book is written. You are to follow it through rapt study. That is never to submit the sentences are complex. The words are relaxed that you pick them at your own pace. You wouldn't find Open City in a boxed space of what it wants itself to be. In fact, the book never panders to the reader's mindset for a particular interpretation and appreciation; it takes you in, makes you wander amidst your own speculations and direct belief and hopefully takes you to where you say; Oh! This is what Open City is. It is as psychological and mentally stimulating as that. You have the personal responsibility to go on an adventure of discovery with Julius, the main character, as he roves through cities {New York and Brussels}, giving breath to places and things that speak of many historical memories.


Julius is the book. Open City is Julius. A sapient character of an observing kind, Julius lights up New York and makes the nerve of the city come alive. He knows everything about it; the paintings in the gallery, the movies in the cinemas, the monuments and statutes that are mundane features of the city, the historical topography and the invisible melancholic voices throbbing from various reconstructed sites. If I had accepted reading Open City without studying Julius; that would simply have meant going through inchoate sentences. Julius is the core of the book. He is the God, for all other things take a minor category in his scholarly world. Nothing eludes Julius' close observations. From music to paintings, cinemas, books and historical facts, he dissects things down to the trivial of details. In his voice, the past is relived. Unlike the normal conversations in novels that carry the distinctness of individual character with sound-bites and quotes, dialogues in Open City are made in Julius internal monologues. This gives him an infallible pristineness. Nobody is as faultless as Julius. When you meet him you would remember I said so.

Farouk almost put Julius' erudite soundness to task. He initially awes Julius as he generously arranges knowledgeable analogies and names into small talks; engaging Julius in academic thinking. He stretches Julius's brilliance to tautness. But when he slipped, Julius nails him and quickly concludes his fatal faultiness in arriving at serious decisions. Farouk has at the first meeting in the cafĂ© coined a word to describe Mohamed Choukri as an autodidact, but changes the appropriation of the same adjective to his self at their subsequent meeting, claiming he had used it so in their previous talk. Julius is a man of memories – triffling and significant; little slips off his memory. Farouk instantly becomes the victim of his own words.

Farouk speaking with Julius at an earlier interaction;

"To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone goes and comes freely? Choukri stayed in Morocco, he lived with his people. What I like best about him is that he was an autodidact…. He was raised on the street and he taught himself to write classical Arabic but he never left the street. " {p104}

This is where Farouk falls;

"But my deeper project is about what I said last time, the difference thing. I strongly believe this, that people can live together, and I want to understand how that can happen… But as I told you, I am an autodidact, so I don't know what form this other project will take." {pg. 113}

Open City's characters lavishly command meaningful significances in ordinary pleasantries. No attention is given to explanations and apologetic refrains. There is a way allusions are embedded into conversations that you just want to know why they are so important to have been mentioned. An exploratory instance is where Farouk, Khalil and Julius engage themselves in discussion at the bar in Brussels. Historical peoples and places become the very instruments of dialogues which are unfurled in Julius' internal monologues. There is the Holocaust, the 1940s Auschwitz concentration camp, the ethnic rivalry of Delaware and Iroquois, Finkelstein's and Noam Chomsky's dissimilarity. Henri Cantier's Decisive Moment, Nabokov's Pinn, Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello and various relevant theories of; Zionism, anti-Semitic, Piety, Ummah, etc.  Google is your partner in this reading. You wouldn't only be reading Open City as you browse through piles of valuable references. At least, without the Internet, Encarta program will do some assists.

I was more than astonished when I venerated Julius in a side notepad. I asked myself questions and conversed with my thoughts; how did Julius get to know of the various buildings formerly occupying the site World Trade Centre was built on? How was he so informed of the streets that passed through this place; some of which dated back to late 1800s? About music, paintings, books and places; doesn't he seem to know so much? This character must be a genius or his creator, Teju Cole, is.

If I had the chance to converse with Julius, I would vehemently question his anecdotal narrative of Obatala and his creation. There are numerous shades being added to the story of Obatala, Eledumare and iseda omo eniyan daily. I have gathered some, check here, here and here. With the popularity of Internet, these shades are constantly overshadowing the truth of this Yoruba creation story. A day will come, when historians will be left with only doubts and the frustration of tracing the real story. In classifying the cripple and the vehemence they bear against their creator, Obatala, Julius' slide to it amuses me;

"…Obatala did well at the task (creation) until he started drinking… he became inebriated, and began to fashion damaged human beings… he made dwarfs, cripples people missing limbs, and those burdened with debilitating illness… They worship Obatala in accusation; it is he who made them as they are. They wear white, which is the color of the palm wine he got drunk on" {p25}

I love Julius for his ingenuity and dislike him for his egocentricity. He determines what becomes fleeting and what stays on with meaningfulness. Julius' personality is in a messy split. How could he have trodden on Terry's poeticity in that manner? Terry can't have known the burdening blow he suffers from Professor Saito's…? Julius can just be that inhuman at times. Sex is a beautiful thing – a stint of it can't cause permanent forgetfulness as is with Julius. Moji; how I so pity her in the web called Julius. This Julius is so puzzlingly enigmatic.


A friend called me during my reading of this book and asked how I was doing with the book. I only had this clipped response for him; Open City is a piece of numerous lateral natures spiraling into the main meaning the reader takes away from it. Everything the book has to get across is at the proportion of the various readers' deep knowledge of the issues as sweepingly alluded to in the book. Yes, my opinion of the book was true then, even when I had just barely gotten farther the middle of its pages' length.

This is Open City. I, Julius, welcome you. Correction; I am Joseph Omotayo. I will never be him. I can't be that complex. Welcome to the review of Teju Cole's Open City.

Bookerbay, a wall-less library is making gallant history in literature. They got this book to me. All I did was to nominate the book with a few friends who supported the nomination. This is a right step in a good direction. Now that I am through with the book, I really need to pass it on to another reader as the rules direct. Thank you Bookerbay, I appreciate the effort, Adebiyi Epistrophy Olusolape.

At CLR, we wish You a Happy, Happy 2012!

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Disdaining the Literary Pyre: Biyi Bandele's Burma Boy

Above all, a good review should be informative and deeply reflective of the issues in the book it focuses on. You, the reader, are to conclude on what side this review should be commended for. But most importantly, pertinent questions are asked. Questions not only the readers should provide answers to. The book's writer and editor are questioned too. CLR leaves you here with Oyebanji Ayodele's take on Biyi's Burma Boy. Read and comment.


As my eyes meandered with passion through the lane of texts that an author's pen has cleared before them, I was made to put into consideration the level of a pen's potency in bridging the titanic gulf between man and history. The mere understanding of the storyline lands with a thud in my mind the Yoruba proverbial saying that:

If the mountain doesn't deem it fit to move close to Mohammed,
On Mohammed lies the onus to move close to the mountain

Here is a sliver of man's history which has been creeping out of his reach into oblivion being chased back to its dwelling by a writer's pen. Truly, a pen is mightier than a rapier. The novel is a manifestation of Biyi Bandele's refusal to allow issues relating to the Second World War lie on a literary pyre. His culinary adroitness in concocting Tommy Sparkle's, his father's, Burma tales with other historical ingredients which his voracious reading taste produced is also evident.  We are all invited to take a sip from the urn of ages – Literature.

The griot in Biyi Bamidele through this novel seeks to inform the mind that cares to know that there was once a realistic battleground on which the Schwarzenegger simulations of blood, courage and death were better acted out (without rehearsals). The Second World War drama is presented based on the experiences of a fantastic Ali Banana, a young and inexperienced black soldier whose desire to fight for kingi Joji of Ingila (king George of England) results in a situation no reader could have prognosticated. Want to know more about this baby soldier? Hear him speak:

"I'm the son of Dawa the king of well digggers whose blessed nose could sniff out water in Sokoto while he's standing in Samanika. I'm the son of Hauwa whose mother was Talatu whose mother was Fatimatu queen of the moist kulikuli cake, the memory of whose kulikuli still makes old men water at the mouth till this day." (Page 37)
As a strong reminiscent of war, one sees nothing but war and more war…

When two mammoths engage in a free for all, grasses suffer all for free. The reader is made to see the involvement of the blacks in a war which has its causes subsumed in the white clouds of their black understanding. One striking thing about the war as recorded in the novel is that nobody is coerced into the army. Here is the message:

"Kingi Joji, monarch of Ingila is fighting a war in a land called Boma and he wants our help. He wants all able – bodied men to go to Kaduna and join his band of warriors." (Page 43)

What then pushes the like of Pash, Ali Banana, Danja and other Burma boys into joining the army? Love for their fellow humans you say? Never! Fellow humans who before the war and even after subjected them to imperialism. Ignorance is the word! I want to believe these characters are not in any way like the Biblical Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who weren't only impudent at the sight of the furnace but who also strove into it with confidence. The war front is never a kulikuli market as Aminu Yerwa sees it.

"When the OC asked Aminu why he brought so much with him, he said he'd been hoping to keep some for himself and to sell the rest in small portions to the boys when we got to India." (Page 53)
Whereas, the only ware for sale at the warfront is death!

If the attainment of manhood means death or some inane thing, I'd rather be a boy all my life. Samanja Damisa posits that "a boy is a man when he feels he's a man." Imagine Pash becoming a man with one leg; Samanja Damisa himself becoming a man with just one ear and Ali Banana… Why not read that up?

What if I say once a thespian is forever a thespian? The mode of narration of the story is an attempt by Biyi to hide behind a visor – Thespis' palm – which in this situation is transparent enough for the reader to discover that the work is better described as a novel written in four acts with its own prologue and epilogue. The ingenious diction which the author employs can be likened to that of an oral artist. The book is fraught with proverbs, songs and other literary embellishments with which the conflict is doused. Listen to this:

"A man does not run on thorns for nothing: either he's chasing something or there's a snake chasing him" (Page 96)

And indeed, they are running on thorns for something:

"… He is there to kill you or die trying…His commanders tell him that if he's taken prisoner when unconscious, he should stuff his tongue and choke himself to death…Our mission is to insert ourselves inside his gut" (Page 27)

Moreover, as detailed as the narration is, the narrator (or maybe the editor) leaves the reader to puzzle out an instance of contradiction.

Consider this:

"… my tale is long but I'll make it short. That very night, Yusufu, Iddrisi, and I set out on foot and headed as the crow flies, in the direction of Kaduna" (Page 43)

In relation to:

"They didn't ask me to come with them that night. In fact, they laughed in my face when I asked if I could come with them. I had to wait a month before I made my own way to Kaduna" (Page 49)

 Which do we believe?

The misuse of the word "anorexia" on page 179 also calls for notice:

"Quite soon the men began to fall sick, exhibiting symptoms ranging from flatulence to anorexia…"

Anorexia at the war front where there is little or nothing to eat!?

The sincerity of the story is apparent in its characterization. That it is complex is enough to be taken as an attestation to the fact that the stage on which war is acted out is large enough to take a large number of soldier-actors (as far as they can kill and may be killed). The story is one that can be likened to a scalpel slicing through a pregnant woman in labour. A monster is born rather than a baby. Via the convincing voice of the griot, the repulsive story of those who killed and died in the service of a history which is not theirs refuses to be laid on a pyre.