BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 12 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 161

Open Cities

Walking with Teju Cole

BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 12 MAR 14

Johannesburg, 2013, photograph by Teju Cole. Courtesy: Teju Cole

Although he has now stopped tweeting about Lagos life – epigrams invested with news of Nigerian modernity, by turns funny and grim – Teju Cole still serially broadcasts his thoughts on Twitter. The acclaimed us-Nigerian author, who is also a doctoral student at Columbia University researching 16th-century Dutch art, was especially prolific during a recent visit to Cape Town, his first to South Africa. ‘What I thought at Robben Island?’ he wrote of the former prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years: ‘That in a half century people will visit Guantanamo Bay and think, “How could humans do this?”’

Cole’s koan-like tweets reach 120,000 interested eyes, or ‘followers’ to use Twitter’s quasi-religious cor­porate lingo. ‘Before I had an audience,’ he offered during the first of numerous appearances at Cape Town’s annual Open Book literary festival, ‘I was much more well-mannered and behaved.’ That, he said, shifted when he started tweeting. ‘It is worthless if I am not saying anything that matters,’ he stated. ‘We are not going to be here very long.’ Death is a fundamental concern for Cole. ‘Where are my ashes going to end up?’ he plaintively wondered during one public conversation. Not yet 40, Cole said he couldn’t imagine with any certainty being buried in either Lagos – ‘you won’t be able to stay dead, it’s so noisy’ – or Brooklyn.

Yes, Cole does humour. ‘About to speak at the University of Cape Town. Hope I won’t be a disgrace. #coetzeejoke.’ Okay, it’s less lol than a literary in-joke; for more obviously amusing stuff, Cole’s self-described ‘small fates’ –compacted epigrams drawn from Nigerian news reports and stylistically informed by the French literary tradition of fait divers – offer plenty of sustenance. ‘Pastor Ogbeke, preaching fervently during a storm in Obrura, received fire from heaven, in the form of lightning, and died,’ is one good example. But, for the most part, Cole’s online voice tends to be sober, incisive, aphoristic. ‘Each penal colony is part of the archipelago of horrors,’ reads an exemplary tweet from his South African visit.

In person, Cole speaks just like he writes: with sober and deliberate precision. I spent a half-hour interviewing the author. The timbre of his voice is seductive. Although born to Nigerian parents in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cole spent his first 17 years in Lagos; because of his hyphenated background, he speaks without a noticeable American twang. Cole uses his voice, at times soft-spoken and purposefully slowed, to urgently and unapologetically speak about the frailty of being human in a world of broken ethics and fundamental violence. This isn’t why I initially disliked Open City (2011), though.

I first picked up Cole’s breakthrough second novel in 2012. After wandering with the protagonist, Julius, through the chiaroscuro half-light of New York, I gave up three-quarters in. Sure, Julius is a smart and insightful narrator, but he is also gauche – he reminded me of Joseph, Saul Bellow’s ruminative protagonist in Dangling Man (1944), also Paul Morel, that absorptive looker whose ‘struggling, abstract speeches’ animate D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons & Lovers (1911). And yes, Open City is an ambitious novel marked by beautiful passages of crystalline prose; Cole’s riff on a painting by John Brewster Jr. confirms why literary writers often make good art critics. But the novel’s central strategy of collaging essayistic anecdotes onto a grey fictional narrative is overcooked. For all his observational prowess and encyclopaedic knowledge, Julius felt less like a character than a roving consciousness shoehorned into a polite realist narrative. Open City deserved a more inventive form, one equal to the zigzagging consciousness of its solitary protagonist-walker.

More sympathetically, Open City, which Cole initially wanted to title ‘Netherland’ – a reference to the ‘hovering, guiding intelligence’ that the Dutch still-life tradition exacts over his novel – is an epic poem about walking. ‘I have always walked a lot wherever I have been, in part because I don’t drive,’ said Cole when I queried this. ‘Out of that lag, I started to gain new forms of knowledge about the space around me. Later, in talking about the book and thinking about what kind of activity it was that I engaged in, I became much more cognisant of the literature of walking, everything from Benjamin and Walser to Solnit.’

Cole, who returns to Lagos once or twice a year, doesn’t walk this intemperate city of perpetual gridlock, unreliable electricity, remarkable literacy and worldwide projective fantasies. And by continuously returning to a place that isn’t so much home as an ur-home, Cole has acquired a perspective. ‘Lagos is almost uniformly badly reported on,’ he said. In part, he offered, this is because there is a difference between writing factually accurate journalism and bearing out the city’s ‘intricacies’ in prose – or indeed photography, to flag a medium that Cole himself grapples with in his spare time.

Listening to Cole, both up-close and from a distance, one realizes Nigeria is a work-in-progress idea for him; Lagos a lover that he is yet to fully commit to (or maybe truer to say awkwardly engaged to, as his forthcoming non-fiction book is about Lagos). Music, he said, is helpful in negotiating the tumult of the city of his youth. ‘The great novel of Lagos is the collected discography of Fela Kuti,’ he declared. ‘It is political, sensual and experiential. There is no greater pleasure being in Lagos than blasting Fela Kuti from a moving car. His star is ascendant.’ And so, quite rightly, is that of Cole.

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.