It Tolls for Thee
By Anna Aslanyan.
Open City, Teju Cole, Faber & Faber 2011
Why do people walk around cities? Psychogeography aside, there are various other reasons, from keeping your body healthy to keeping your mind sane. The protagonist of Teju Cole’s first novel does not seem to know what makes him wander around his adopted New York; being analytically disposed, he asks this question of himself, but the answer is either not ready or too hard to express. A young resident doctor, well read, well travelled, hailing from Nigeria, at first he comes across as an everyman figure, there to translate the meaning of the city’s surfaces for you, but soon takes on individual features. The more we learn about him, the less exciting his perambulations become, which may be a mere coincidence – or the age-old, if much disputed, truth that an artist has to sacrifice his persona if he is to distil his art into a pure essence.
The hero acquires a name, a family – now defunct, his father dead, his mother estranged – a roster of childhood memories, former girlfriends and lost affections. On one level, you feel disappointed after such a promising, almost mesmerising start – it is as if the protagonist of Tom McCarthy‘s Remainder got loaded with all this baggage; on another, the stories you hear are powerful in their own right. The descriptions of Nigeria are vivid sketches which, on reflection, do have their use within the dissected topography, serving as a backdrop for NYC with its performances played out as you follow the hero through Manhattan and beyond.
Wherever he goes, Julius’ roots never leave him alone as he talks to people of various backgrounds about his origins. Watching The Last King of Scotland, the film about the relationship between Idi Amin and his personal physician, he remembers a diatribe against all Africans without distinction he once heard from an Ugandan-Indian who had emigrated to America following Amin’s atrocities. The bitter taste remains with him for the rest of the book; he neither supports perceptions of this kind nor directly refutes them, and when, towards the end, he is attacked by two black youngsters, it feels almost logical. Another, possibly bigger shock awaits him when he visits a club in Brussels (an unusual holiday destination, but he is there for a reason) and, assuming most of the crowd there are Congolese, finds out they are from Rwanda. “It was as though the space had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying. What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting? […] Who, among the present, I asked myself, had killed or witnessed killing?” As it eventually transpires, the same question can, in a sense, be applied to himself; it is this realisation that justifies all the soul-searching that goes on throughout the book, not the standard I-am-looking-for-my-past-whose-fault-is-it-it’s-mired-in-violence? mantra. The protagonist is intelligent enough to understand: “Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
That conversations between Julius and other characters often turn to Africa is to be expected – in America, the land of immigrants, you talk about your origins a lot. He meets most enquiries with measured calm, although you can see that he would prefer to talk about Mahler or Freud or Camus rather than to explain to a stranger that his fellow countrymen “are a bit aggressive, but I think the reason is that we like to get ahead, make our presence felt. We think of ourselves as the Japanese of Africa, without the technological brilliance.” One thing that strikes you as odd is that he addresses his black male interlocutors as “brother” – a strange trait in a man of his background, half-Nigerian. As I was sitting in a London park with the book, wondering about this peculiarity, a Nigerian passer-by approached me, having noticed the name on the cover. He did not call me “sister”, but asked where the author was from and what I thought of the novel, and promised to look it up. I told him what he wanted to know and kept wondering.
As Julius’ walks expand geographically, circumnavigating the city in wider and wider loops, his mental wanderings slowly converge to a series of landmarks in his past, including the story of his grandmother who survived the fall of Berlin in 1945 and his memories of attending a military school back home. The apex is his father’s funeral and the sudden recollection of another, long-forgotten, carefully blocked out death. The mood gradually gets darker until we reach the novel’s sensual climax, a Ballardian (minus the sex) car crash scene, and this “vision of needless suffering” is followed by an even more surreal and painful revelation, also strangely devoid of sex. The final accord is the hero’s trip to the Statue of Liberty, its crown closed since 2001, no light shining from its torch – the structure has stopped being a lighthouse years ago. You shut the book and reread its title, this time taking in the black bird perched on its lettering, bright yellow as a beam over Hudson once must have been.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 1st, 2011.