City Psychosis

Orlando Reade explores Lagos and New York in the work of Teju Cole

Text by Orlando Reade

The city has no limits. It fades into the outside, the world that feeds it. A philosopher might call a city an abstract totality; it is a logical inference and an act of imagination. We reason the city from the concrete particularity of our daily lives, build it up from hearsay, reading the signs that point elsewhere, towards the whole that is a bureaucratic myth (“Greater London” or Salman Rushdie’s parody, “Proper London”). Cities present a problem for those who want to know them entirely. A city’s inhabitants often cannot see what distinguishes the place. It falls to visitors to give a place its proper description, but a stranger’s perspective may project onto the city an image of his own alienation.

This problem is a central concern for the writing of Teju Cole. Born in the US in 1975, raised in Nigeria and living back in the US since 1992, Cole is the author of two books, Open City (Faber & Faber, 2012) and Every Day Is for the Thief (Faber & Faber, 2014) whose main characters are the cities they describe. These books explore the borders between fiction and autobiography, narratives of walking and standing still in New York, Brussels, Lagos and Abuja.

At the beginning of Open City, the narrator – a trainee psychiatrist whose name we eventually learn is Julius – has acquired the habit of walking through the streets of New York: “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.” Julius’s aimless walks become, for the narrative, how the city is known. It is an endless task. Despite the fact that these walks seem designed to lead him into encounters, they frequently induce discomfort. He is a Nigerian immigrant, and the book documents a series of interactions – with strangers, patients and friends – where race and nationality are a significant fact. An African cab driver, for example, is offended that Julius has not greeted him with the familiarity of a fellow immigrant. On 
the streets, the grounds for recognition are unstable. One evening, Julius acknowledges two young men who later attack him, apparently at random.

This city is an immense accumulation of chance encounters. For Aristotle, events occur by chance when another action is intended: you go the market to buy something and encounter a man who owes you money. Art has often taken up the chance encounter as an experience of beauty and strangeness; in André Breton’s Surrealist novel Nadja, the narrator and another artist visit a Parisian flea market to discover second-hand objects that would complete their unfinished artworks. In the 1950s, this aesthetic was transformed by the Situationist group into a radical practice, the dérive, a walk through the city directed by the city’s immanent logic.

In Open City, the encounters appear organised by some psychic logic: “I rehearsed in the dark the numerous incidents and sights I had encountered while roaming, sorting each encounter like a child playing with wooden blocks, trying to figure out which belonged where, which responded to bricks.” Open City is clearly indebted to W.G. Sebald, the German émigré author of sombre biographical fictions. In Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, the protagonist describes how he “sometimes sat here for hours, laying out these photographs or others from his collection the wrong way up, as if playing a game of patience.” In Open City, too, the organisation of images appears to be the key to some psychological quest, anxiously working over the traces of past presences, as if hoping to discover the origins of a trauma.

The book is scattered with the traces of violence, half-forgotten and unresolved. The suicide of one of Julius’s patients, a historian of Indian American tribes, causes him to reflect on the long history of the country to which he is one of the more recent migrants. Walking through the financial district, he recalls that the territory of the Lenape tribe once included Lower Manhattan. “What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble? The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten.” The city also buries histories. Migration is not only a biographical fact but also a state of consciousness and forgetting. At the beginning of the novel, Julius describes his fascination with birds and the pleasure at seeing, from the windows of his apartment, “the miracle of natural immigration”. The book ends, not coincidentally, with a factual description of the birds killed every day by the Statue of Liberty. The narrative discovers these deep ironies in the forgotten histories of a city whose inhabitants skate across its surface.

On a trip to Brussels, Julius meets a young Moroccan intellectual called Farouq at an internet café and they spend an evening together discussing world politics with a Marxist friend of Farouq. Julius observes his two companions with empathy and some degree of scepticism: “It was hard to escape a feeling that we were having a conversation before the 20th century had begun or just as it had started to run its cruel course. We were suddenly back in the age of pamphlets, solidarity…” This sentiment itself seems old-fashioned after the events of 2011, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the remobilisation of technologies for new forms of solidarity. Once he has returned to New York, Julius sends Farouq a copy of Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism. The book, a celebration of the “universal” values of liberal cosmopolitanism and an attack on the post-colonial theory of cultural imperialism, is unlikely to appeal to the radical Farouq, who confesses that his youthful desire was to be the next Edward Said. This gift expresses Julius’s cosmopolitan perspective, its privilege and limitations. It is in these moments of disconnect between the narrator and reality – brief, everyday psychoses – that the novel delivers its most profound intellectual and psychological insights.

Towards the end of the novel, a serious accusation is made against Julius by another Nigerian migrant and the reader is presented with a choice: to read his obliviousness as innocence or begin to question every moment of the narrative. Julius, who reads Freud only for “literary truths”, is forced to consider the existence of his own unconscious. Has this mind, like the city, buried the memory of violence? There is a constant danger, with this book, of confusing narrative with a statement of truth. James Wood, in the review that helped to propel Open City to literary acclaim, confuses admiration for the book with admiration for its cultured scientific narrator, and doesn’t mention the accusation at all. The city of this novel is the product of a particular perspective (his class, race, profession, traumas, etc.), and one that does not always know the limits of its knowledge.

Following the success of Teju Cole’s “debut” novel, an earlier novella appeared. Originally published in Nigeria and now slightly adapted for a global audience, Every Day Is for the Thief follows the narrator – who is unnamed but may also be Julius – to Nigeria, where he is travelling for the first time in 15 years. This book, published in 2007 (15 years after the author moved to America), appears to be exploring the same, shifting border between autobiography and fiction as Open City. This writing fully inhabits the paradox of strangeness and belonging: his book on New York celebrated by the American literary establishment, the one on Lagos written for a Nigerian audience. Events in the two books appear to circle one another. The same premature death of the narrator’s father is described in both, and it seems the two works sit under the same canopy of grief, solemnity interrupted only by the joy or irritation of unexpected encounters.

Unlike those who cross the pages of European cities, Lagos is too dangerous to wander through. The flâneur, an exemplary observer of modern life described in the 19th century by Charles Baudelaire, was a man in disguise, capable of traversing the class distinctions that stratified 19th-century Parisian society, in order to give a total picture of the city. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin built a philosophy of history on the experience of the flâneur: his unfinished Arcades Project took the complex of shopping arcades in Paris as an allegory for the total organisation of life in the 19th century. This fragmentary work remains influential, in opposition to the totalising pictures of the social sciences that transform the city into statistical data and satellite images.

Access in Lagos is often defended by force. Society does not unfold into the boulevards and public parks in the same way as in Paris; the Nigerian elite live maximally distanced from the public, and the streets are guarded from visitors by security guards and local “area boys”. In Every Day Is for the Thief, the narrator tells a cautionary tale about his uncle, threatened on his way to Oshodi Market. The pages of this book are interspersed by the author’s opaque photographs of everyday life in Nigeria, images of faces turned away, bodies without journalistic captions. Eugene Atget, the Parisian photographer celebrated by Benjamin, created an archive of everyday life; documentary photographers in Lagos, however, often face threats. Cole’s narrator is warned against using the danfo, the minibuses that transport Lagosians everywhere around the city. His uncle and aunt believe it will be dangerous and inappropriate: “It is about keeping the lines of privilege taut.” In Lagos you hear stories of passengers abducted and used for witchcraft rituals or organ donations. The chance encounter may be hazardous.

The narrator does take the danfo. He visits the market, where, he says, one goes to “participate in the world”. If other places in the city are sealed and guarded, the market is where we are exposed to each other, forced to coexist. In the market, the narrator reconstructs a recent event, an instance of “jungle justice”: a young thief was chased, beaten and set alight by a mob. These events hold a gruesome promise for a writer. After watching two drivers brawl after a car accident, the narrator comments, “Well, this is wonderful, I think. Life hangs out here. The pungent details are all around me. It is a paradise for the lover of gossip.” Lagos, unlike Manhattan, has yet to be intensively analysed.

The narrator admits he has creative ambitions, and is considering returning to live in the city that would be his subject. But in Lagos, he believes, making art is difficult. The narrator’s every encounter begins to measure the relative tolerability of life in Nigeria: the traffic problems, car accidents, plane crashes, bribes from the police and threats from “area boys”. The excitement of these events shades into a horror at the swiftness of life where death appears so frequently, where it is at risk of becoming uneventful. One of the regular power-cuts and a noisy generator prompts the narrator to realise: “I love my own tranquillity too much to muck about in other people’s troubles. I am not going to move back to Lagos. No way. I don’t care if there are a million untold stories.” Recognition of these difficulties gives the narrator new respect for the Nigerian artists who “keep an artistic struggle alive”. Nigeria – as much as everywhere else – needs culture to record its traumas and joys.

At the end of Every Day Is for the Thief, the narrator has returned to America, and memories of Lagos return. “I am there again, in the area around St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Iganmu.” The city is transformed, in this passage, into a labyrinth through which the narrator moves without purpose but not at random, either. 
“I sense an intentionality to my being there. It feels like a return, like a centre, though it is not a place I have ever been before.” He finds himself in an alley populated by carpenters building small wooden boats. They are not boats, he realises, but coffins, yet the mistake stays with him, and he imagines the coffins as boats. “It is an uncanny place, this dockyard of Charon’s.” The narrator suddenly realises the significance of the location. “This is the street to which the people of old Lagos, right across the social classes, come when someone dies.” Is there a St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Iganmu? Google cannot find one. In this book we do not always know whether we are walking through a city that exists in fantasy or reality. Teju Cole has commented in recent interviews that he is writing a new work of non-fiction on Lagos, a city whose existence in both fantasy and reality remains under-documented.

Opposite the final page of text there is an image of two young boys standing in a small boat. The location of the photograph is perhaps Makoko, a settlement of 100,000 people living in buildings raised on stilts above Lagos’ lagoon, threatened by extreme weather and an intolerant state government. Residents say that Eko Atlantic, a new luxury development that has received support from the government despite the concerns of local residents, will intensify the damage the ocean causes to coastal settlements. In 2012, architecture studio NLÉ built a floating school for Makoko. The wooden A-frame structure can accommodate 100 adults, even in extreme weather conditions. The state government has called the building an “illegal structure” and threatened to demolish Makoko entirely. There is a material struggle in Lagos, not just to survive for the present but also to build sustainable structures to accommodate future growth and change.

In the photograph, the boy at the back of the boat stretches his hand out towards the viewer, while the boy at the front stands straight, wearing a white robe, his hands gathered in front of him, like a priest. The boat is drifting at an oblique angle to the viewer; it will drift past. Is this image a last wordless parable? The boy at the back has one hand on the rudder, steering the boat, but his other hand still reaches out to us, as if in a parody of urgency. The look on their faces is serene, almost playful. The camera lens frames what it wants and everything else is excluded. The book ends with this contradictory image of movement and inertia, two unidentified bodies fixed in transit to some other place. The cosmopolitan, one supposed to know the world, has encountered something beyond the limits of his knowledge. §