Walking the City with Dinaw Mengestu & Teju Cole
By Jenny Doubt
‘Our memories… are like a river cut off from the ocean. With time they will slowly dry out in the sun, and so we drink and drink and drink and we can never have our fill.’ (Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, 9.)
James Joyce played one of my first literary tricks on me. In his canonical short story ‘The Dead’ (1914), the eponymous dead character Michael Furey is definitely the most alive: alive in his animation of the story’s other characters, alive enough in their memory so as to provide a catalyst for the events that the story holds. It would ultimately be a lesson that would serve up meaning again, in my long and far wanderings away from curriculum literature, some hundred years after it was first penned. This is no less true in Dinaw Mengestu’s debut The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007) and Teju Cole’s second book, Open City (2011), two self-declared novels whose American pages, complete with the amnesia and autonomy that help define contemporary urban life, throb with the African cities that they have ultimately fled and lost.
In The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007) the Ethiopia of Sepha Stephanos is animated in the Washington city of his wanderings. Here, in his tiny shop selling the stuff of American lives (diapers, milk, cigarettes, candy), an outdated map of Africa becomes the cartography on which three African immigrants plot and revive their memories of ‘home’. It is on this map that memory and loss become conjoined to reveal a complicated and perhaps cruel nostalgia:
‘Kenneth walks over to the map of Africa I keep taped on the wall right next to the door. It’s at least twenty years old, maybe older. The borders and names have changed since it was made, but maps, like pictures and journals, have a built-in nostalgic quality that can never render them completely obsolete. The countries are all color-coded, and Africa’s hanging dour head looks like a woman’s head wrapped in a shawl.’
In the same way that the men remember their fathers by their scars in fear that they will forget them, memories of home are choreographed around mnemonic games that involve naming African coups and their associated dictators. This map of Africa is peopled with more than thirty coups, suggesting an excess that stands in stark juxtaposition to the limitations of the memory it is devised to test: ‘No matter how many we name,’ Stephanos remarks, ‘there are always more, the names, dates, and years multiplying as fast as we can memorize them so that at times we wonder, half-jokingly, if perhaps we ourselves aren’t somewhat responsible.’
While the cruelty of what the men recall of their continent and their ironic complicity in perpetuating such a history is carefully rendered ‘half-jokingly’, descriptions of personal loss are palpably elegiac. ‘The cuff links, a holdover from my father’s days in the Ethiopian government, had the old Ethiopian flag with the Lion of Judah and his crooked crown on it. They were the only things of my father I had left’, describes Stephanos, whose father was murdered during Ethiopia’s Red Terror.
Yet among what Stephanos has lost in his Ethiopian past is what he has found in America: A triangle of African immigrants represent his American family. Together they are Joseph (‘Joe from the Congo’, who waits tables), Kenneth (‘Ken the Kenyan’, an engineer) and the narrator, Stephanos, who ‘didn’t need a nickname to remind [his boss] that [he] was Ethiopian’. Having met 17 years ago while they were working at the Capitol Hotel, the dependable meetings between the three men provide the book’s internal structure and are responsible for many of the literal descriptions of what the title indicates may well be ‘beautiful’: The red second-hand Saab that Kenneth buys, the $10 shots that the men drink on a Friday night (‘because that’s what people do at the end of a hard day’). And so Stephanos observes his life being coded with the superficial domestic rituals of American life. Robbed of some of the rituals of immigrant life – of sending money home to his mother and brother in Ethiopia, not because he can afford to, but because he is in America ‘and because sending money home is supposed to be the consolation prize for not being home’ – his mother’s returned and supplemented cheques represent a reminder of the symbolic abundance of the familial home that he has lost. Descriptions such as these also jar us gently into remembering that this, like Open City, is a novel that intends to defy stereotypes about African immigrants.
Another of the novel’s ‘found’ immigrants is Judith, a white woman who buys the house next door to Stephanos in Logan Circle, and in so doing threatens to interrupt the neighbourhood’s apparent internal racial cohesion. With her comes her 11 year-old daughter Naomi, whose friendship with Stephanos is the novel’s most tenuous and tender. Together they read The Brother’s Karamazov for hours, the Russian epic imbued with the tragic loss that Dostoyevsky suffered while writing it. The tension that Mengestu maintains, between the narrative of loss enacted by two fatherless children reading a novel penned by an author who has just lost his son, and the regenerative possibility of hope in the families that immigrants find and make is reiterated no less during these reading sessions. It is present in the powerful way that Stephanos claims Naomi, with her ‘skin tone closer to mine than her mother’s’, and the performance of intimacy that these readings allow ‘sometimes while I read, Naomi would lay her head against my arm or in my lap and rest there, wide awake and attentive, until forced to move. It was just enough to make me see how one could want so much more out of life.’
From being the only area Stephanos could afford, Judith’s arrival is proof to Stephanos that ‘wealth and power were not immutable, and America was not always so great after all.’ Judith’s presence, and that of the workmen renovating the house she has just bought, become a metaphor for the supposed betterment of the area that her presence signals. Her arrival is also the catalyst for the new deli counter that Stephanos installs in his store, and by extension, his life. And yet the hope that urban regeneration is supposed to signal is rendered as a knock-knock joke, a coda of the book’s earlier cruel humour: ‘[G]uess what?’ … ‘Some white people just moved in’/’Where?’/’Next door.’/’Next door to who?’/’Me.’/’He’s lying.’/’I’m serious.’
With Judith’s appearance in the neighbourhood, women called ‘Velvet’ and ‘Chocolate’, who used to be Stephanos’ regulars, disappear, foreshadowing Judith’s own disappearance and reiterating the novel’s structural motif of marking arrivals and departures. But Stephanos’ experience is such that he is still able to place their removal on a continuous trajectory. Without the shroud of American amnesia, people cannot simply disappear to Stephanos: they are killed, they immigrate, they are forced to move away. These women have not ‘vanished not into thin air, but into a different space or reality, as if they had all collectively taken flight and migrated to another climate.’
Teju Cole’s Open City plays, too, albeit beautifully, with the motif of migration. When dominant culture is superimposed on original culture, it often produces the blurring of cultural boundaries, an inside and an outside, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘nervous condition’ of uncertainty about who you are. This negotiation, Fanon has oft remarked, in turn results in the attempt of trying to live as two incompatible people at once, a phenomena that is sometimes attributed to diasporic and postcolonial subjects. Cole, however, draws us into the ‘miracle of natural migration’ in the opening paragraphs of his novel. The perspective of the geese that he watches, ‘wondering how our life below might look from their perspective’, comes to look something very much like Open City. This is not a novel about trying to live two lives at once, but of one person’s grounded synthesis of the many places and times he has embodied geographically and temporally: ‘Those disembodied voices remain connected in my mind, even now, with the apparition of migrating geese.’
At the centre of this novel is a half-Nigerian, half-German narrator, whose heritage is as removed from the centre of his identity so as to be described as a ‘detail of my background, that I was Nigerian…’. The novel is not driven by plot, but style, as Julius, who is in the final year of his psychiatry residency, wanders from one of his physical ‘centres’, his home in Harlem, around New York (and, briefly, Brussels), recording the lives of others:
‘These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway.’
We travel, too, through the women of his past: To the mother he has become estranged from, the romantic relationship that has ended with his girlfriend Nadège (‘hope’) and the oma (grandmother) he feels displaced from. We also travel through the African immigrants and emigrants, the men, that people his present: a Liberian imprisoned in Queens; a Haitian shoe-shiner; a fiercely opinionated Moroccan student whom he befriends in Brussels.
While Julius is undoubtedly a detached viewer, an individual in a city that is ‘open’, his solitary existence does not feel lonely for the close company we keep with him. He wanders through his adopted city thinking about critical theory, connecting to the complicated compositions of classical musicians such as Mahler, bearing witness to the art of Velázquez. Julius’ New York streets resonate with books by Barthes and references to Tahar Ben Joulloun and become the sounding board for his opinion on The Last King of Scotland.
True to the genre that Beaudelaire initiated and which Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin subsequently adapted, as a novel depicting a solipsistic flaneur at its heart, Julius does suffer from the anxieties of modern urban life and a preoccupation with autonomy. Anxieties over the loss of his pin number at a cash machine, and the subsequent confiscation of his bank card lead to a hopelessness; the anger at being laid claim to by a taxi driver who is ‘African, just like you’ finds its counterpoint in the overwhelmingly peopled and yet solitary existence that urban ‘migration’ – commuting – sometimes requires:
‘The sight of large masse of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counter-instinctive death drive, into movable catacombs. Above ground I was with thousands of others in their solitude, but in the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us reenacting unacknowledged traumas, the solitude intensified.’
The book’s style – rendered almost as Cole’s diary – a lyrical, interconnected reverie, is what salvages Julius from the overwhelming sense of loss that marks Stephanos’ life. The record of a feeling as intransient as Julius missing his oma brings with it the promise of a trip to Belgium and the memory of his grandmother’s visit to Nigeria; and with that the impression of his family’s tour of the palaces of the Deji in Akure and Ooni in Ife is in turn rooted in a walk that lands Julius outside the American Folk Art Museum. And thus a new paragraph delineating the Museum’s artifacts begins, the long history of the interior of Yorubaland bearing at its heels.
And so, among other places, impressions of Nigeria are inscribed into the crevices of New York City. Without the autonomy that urban American life demands, the streets that Julius walks could not become alive with the palimpsest of personal experience. The city becomes a canvas for the tour Julius ultimately leads us on of his interior life, in which he connects the interior to the exterior, the quotidian to the divine, the personal to the public: The cripple on the 1 train that Julius encounters, dragging his leg from car to car, is the result of the Yoruba belief about the drunken demiurge Obatala, drinking heavily as he mis-fashioned humans out of clay; bedbugs antagonise like the memory of Basra bombs being discussed in Yoruba by two women in burqas, a detail that Cole suggests connects them to the ‘women in black gowns… beat[ing] their breasts’ that he sees on the news. The riverlets of Stephanos’ fractured memory map may well not be connected to the ocean of his home, but in Open City, Julius inevitably connects them to each other.
Open City ends inevitably on a pessimistic note, the author noting the number of birds that have died throughout history, disoriented by the fierce torch that guided ships into Manhatten’s harbor from the Statue of Liberty. And yet while the arrival of those birds in America has been marked not by liberation but death, through the pages of this book we are inevitably reminded of the span of their flight through different histories and lands. As such, they can’t help but come alive. If The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears bears witness to the project of reading, then Open City is about the project of writing. ‘But a book suggests conversation: one person is speaking to another…’, writes Cole, ‘so I read aloud with myself as my audience, and gave voice to another’s words.’ Both novels ultimately forge communities of belonging from their lonely wanderings though a city’s strange streets.
Benedict Anderson has suggested that nations are often the products of those who have left the country and who ‘fondly fund at long distance future recreations of idealized memories of their past.’ Both The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and Open City are replete with the poetry of loss and cadence of shadow that allows what is not entirely present to come alive while imbuing the lives of those who have not entirely arrived with the formations that will animate their stories for times and peoples still yet to come.
 Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism (Oxford: OUP, 2003), p. 63.