Sunday, April 15, 2012

Téju Cole: An excerpt from Open City and the author talks about his background

Open City (2011),by Téju Cole, is one of the finest novels published in the U.S. in recent memory. Highly recommended, along with the video (from The New Yorker) embedded above.  A sample from the novel, which is set in New York, Lagos and Brussels:
We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.  The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.  Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity.  These were the things that had been solidified in my mind by reiteration, that recurred in dreams and daily thoughts:  certain faces, certain conversations, which, taken as a group, represented a secure version of the past that I had been constructing since 1992.  But there was another, irruptive, sense of things past.  The sudden reencounter, in the present, of something or someone long forgotten, some part of myself I had relegated to childhood and to Africa.  An old friend came to me out of this latter past, a friend, or rather than acquaintance whom memory now made convenient to think of as a friend, so that what seemed to have vanished entirely existed once again.
These musings invite comparisons, without a stretch, to Proust. Consider, from Remembrance of Things Past:
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.

For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them) and that fame is transitory, the manner in which—by means of a sort of snapshot—we take cognizance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilizing it.  

And so it is with our own past. It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.

In the broad daylight of our habitual memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never recapture it. Or rather we should never recapture it had not a few words been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unobtainable. 
Open City reads so much like a memoir that I had to keep reminding myself that it's fiction. Stylistically, it bears a striking similarity (especially in the opening chapter) to the work of W.G. Sebald, the great German novelist. Both authors refrain from using quotes, though Cole's characters have frequent conversations in Open City. They both share an interest in photography, though only Sebald generously sprinkles grainy and mysterious black-and-white photos through his texts.

Cole lives in Brooklyn and is the writer-in-residence at Bard College.  He is also a photographer and art historian. His nonfiction work in progress is set in Lagos.

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