I became aware of a torrent of praise for this novel well before the end of year lists were published in papers, periodicals and magazines but the sheer regularity with which its title appeared again and again made it a must-read novel by the year's end. Acclaimed by many as a debut it is in fact Cole's second book after the novella-length debut Every Day Is For The Thief (published but seemingly unavailable from Cassava Republic). But whether it's his first, second or third book it remains a frighteningly accomplished piece of work particularly when you consider that it refuses to use many of the standard tropes of the novel like plot for example.
The narrator, Julius, is a psychiatrist in the final year of his residency in New York. Having grown up in Nigeria we find him enduring a bit of a tough time in Manhattan; estranged from his German mother, recently dumped by his girlfriend, and struggling with the strict routine of his work. And so he walks in the evenings around the streets of New York, an 'aimless wandering' during which he ruminates on his past in Nigeria but far more often allows his intelligent and erudite mind to dwell on the present. He has conversations with random people he meets, much later in the novel he has a picnic with some friends, and he is mugged. That, apart from a short trip to Brussels, is all you get in terms of plot. And yet I can't remember enjoying the actual process of reading so much in quite some time. I enjoyed it so much that I spectacularly failed to make the usual notes and page markings that I would normally make in order to pull quotes and make observations. This is also partly due to the slightly hypnotic quality of the writing. Julius literally wanders from topic to topic, covering a dizzying array of subjects: art, music, politics, history, with an ease that surely hides some painstaking work as valuable as any conventional plotting in a novel and which results in a book that performs a labour of historical excavation whilst seeming to glide through the reader's mind with contradictory ease. One feels like they are being taken on a tour of the city that ends up becoming a tour of Julius' mind and whilst he occasionally strays into smart alec territory or risks losing the less erudite amongst us (points finger at self) he remains on the whole a witty, charming and fascinating guide. All of which makes an event near the novel's conclusion all the more chilling.
New York itself is drawn afresh, you will find no cliched shortcuts like steaming manhole covers here, Cole's eye as a photographer himself is keen for the focus-pulling detail. But Like Sebald, whose writing I was immediately reminded of, this is also a kind of psychogeography. This is a city where Julius can say he sits alone in 'the great cave of the theatre No, not alone exactly: in the company of a hundred others, but all strangers to me.' A place where the Carnegie Hall might have served as the backdrop to a scene or romance or revelation in another novel but whose fire escape serves as the location for one of the novel's standout scenes. Simply exiting through the wrong door leaves Julius balanced precariously, high up on the side of the building in the rain, the door locked behind him. He makes slow, perilous progress down the fire escape which appears to end before reaching the ground and it is with relief that he finds a door to lead him back into the concert hall.
Before I entered the door, holding it open with relief and gratitude, it occurred to me to look straight up, and much to my surprise, there were stars. Stars! I hadn’t thought I would be able to see them, not with the light pollution perpetually wreathing the city, and not on a night on which it had been raining. But the rain had stopped while I was climbing down, and had washed the air clean. The miasma of Manhattan’s electric lights did not go very far up into the sky, and in the moonless night, the sky was like a roof shot through with light, and heaven itself shimmered. Wonderful stars, a distant cloud of fireflies: but I felt in my body what my eyes could not grasp, which was that the true nature was the persisting visual echo of something that was already in the past. In the unfathomable ages it took for light to cross such distances, the light source itself had in some cases been long extinguished, its dark remains stretched away from us at ever greater speeds.
The novel's title comes from the declaration made by a city under imminent threat of attack that it is not defended or occupied by military forces and therefore cannot be bombed under international law. It is this that saved Brussels from becoming 'another Dresden' but the title also has some relevance to New York, particularly in the wake of 9/11. It is telling that Julius finds himself at the site of the World Trade Center attacks completely by accident and whilst staring down into the bowels of the empty site sees the site as 'a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten...I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.'
The place had become a metonym of its disaster: I remembered a tourist who once asked me how he could get to 9/11: not the site of the events of 9/11 but to 9/11 itself, the date petrified into broken stones.
New York is also an open city in terms of its welcoming of people from all over the world, the traditional land of opportunity. Julius' conversations with Farouq, the man behind the counter in an internet cafe are fascinating not only because they show the intelligence of a man who seems to be doing a job that requires so little (he is in fact studying to become a translator) but also because they deal with the problem of how exactly people of different races and religions can live together, his shop a microcosm of what might be possible on a larger scale. Farouq genuinely wrestles with it, how to preserve difference and uniqueness whilst also becoming part of a larger society. On that trip to Brussels I mentioned earlier Julius asks the woman he dines with about Farouq's trouble living as an a Arab in a so-called open city like Brussels. She however has little patience for those who complain - 'if you're too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer, too.'
And what of Julius' suffering? What does he achieve with all his wandering and wondering? The novel itself almost follows a stream of consciousness but what does he learn from looking back?
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.
Perhaps Julius' need to walk isn't in order to achieve any great insight about his past. We never learn why exactly he is estranged from his mother, what really happened within his recently ended relationship, we still know next to nothing about any friends he might have until that picnic near the end of the book and it is after that that Moji, a woman he knew when she was just a girl back in Nigeria, delivers something of a bombshell to the book as a whole. Whether what she says is true or not we cannot help but notice how masked a view our guide may have given us after all. All that walking may not have been towards something after all but away from it. I don't want to make it sound too much like a twist, it is left open for us to decide whether it is true or not, and in fact it risks destabilising the whole book. I thought it added something really interesting but would have found the book quite brilliant without it. With it however, an already complex and absorbing read becomes something altogether more dangerous and we the reader have been complicit all the way.