Stoic man walking through ‘Open City’

By Joseph Peschel
February 24, 2011

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In his debut novel, “Open City,’’ Teju Cole, who was raised in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1992, tells the story of a young, immigrant medical student in New York City. Cole is a historian, who, according to his website, spent an “unhappy year in medical school,’’ which may account for the stoicism of the novel’s narrator, Julius. Not only is the main character stoic, but Cole imbues the novel with the existential feel of Sartre’s “Nausea’’ and the absurdism of Camus’s “The Stranger.’’

Part German, part Nigerian, and in his early 30s, Julius is doing residency in a psychiatric training program at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The time is post-9/11, 2006-2007. The economy is in shambles: Tower Records has declared bankruptcy; Blockbuster stores are closing. The world is ridding itself of its dictators: “The Last King of Scotland’’ is showing; Saddam Hussein is executed — but one has the feeling others will replace them. Like Camus’s Meursault, Julius is unemotional. But his stoicism concerns the terrible history he recounts and the modern atrocities he witnesses. The reader will wonder near the novel’s end whether Julius himself might benefit from becoming the subject of his professional practice.

Throughout the novel, Julius walks and broods in the streets of New York, and, for a couple of weeks, Brussels. The walks begin as therapy. He discovers that “[e]ach neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight.’’ Soon, though, the walks became normal.

He has recently broken up with his girlfriend Nadège. Julius enjoys poetry and classical music, especially Mahler’s symphonies. He has few friends — the 89-year-old specialist in early English literature and mentor Dr. Saito, and a fellow about his own age who likes jazz, a fondness that Julius tolerates. After work at the hospital, Julius roams New York and ponders the past and present. A loner and amateur historian (judging by his historical commentary) kin to Sartre’s Roquentin, Julius seems to be on a quest of self-understanding, but he never directly addresses major questions. And instead of being nauseated by history, he suffers fits of memory loss, which play a part later when a friend from Nigeria confronts him about a crime.

Julius barely notices the others around him. He realizes that he hasn’t talked to a certain neighbor in several months, but that’s only after discovering the neighbor’s wife has died. He’s concerned about the atrocities committed by Idi Amin and Saddam; their crimes make him uncomfortable, but little more — a fact that makes him a bit ashamed that he doesn’t have some stronger reaction. Still those feelings subside quickly. Society, he observes, sanitizes the news of the Sept. 11 attacks by not including pictures of dead bodies because they would be too upsetting; but “atrocity is nothing new.’’

When he reminisces about his childhood, four years of which he spent in Nigerian military school, it’s always without much emotion. Father dies when Julius is 14, but Julius counters his relatives’ hysteria with stoicism. One night much later, Julius hears a group of marching women chanting “take back the night,’’ yet he doesn’t seem to realize or care why they’re marching.

“Open City’’ is a quiet novel that somehow manages to scream. Despite all of his ruminating, Julius seems, like the world around him, to be in a state of psychological paralysis, unaffected by historical and contemporary atrocities. Perhaps like the world’s leaders, Julius can neither remember nor acknowledge the crimes of his own past when they come back to haunt him.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at or through his website at

OPEN CITY By Teju Cole

Random House, 259 pp., $25