Happy Birthday, Bo Pettersson!

(With some delay), my best wishes on the anniversary of Bo Pettersson, professor of the literature of the United States at the University of Helsinki. Professor Pettersson was one of my mentors during my English studies as exchange student at the University of Helsinki in the late 1990s, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to contribute to the excellent Festschrift in his honor, edited by Merja Polvinen, Maria Salenius and Howard Sklar, entitled Mielikuvituksen maailmat / Fantasins världar / Worlds of Imagination.

My contribution examines signs of uncertain times in New York and Brussels in Teju Cole’s Open City, and is an endeavor to get to grips with the complex lines of flight between the rich, aestheticizing text by Cole, with its many echoes from earlier city literature, and the actual events in early twenty-first century New York and Brussels

Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Open City: Reading Signs of Uncertain Times in New York and Brussels.” In Polvinen, Merja; Salenius, Maria & Sklar, Howard (eds.): Mielikuvituksen maailmat / Fantasins världar / Worlds of Imagination. Turku: Eetos, 290-308

Contact me for the full text at lieven.ameel [a] uta.fi

From the Introduction:

“In Teju Cole’s acclaimed novel Open City (2011), the young protagonist
Julius, a psychiatry intern who has moved to the United States from
Nigeria, wanders through post-9/11 New York, gauging the complex
history of the city and struggling to connect the stories he encounters
with his own personal history and identity. On his daily strolls, he meets a
range of marginal characters and repressed urban memories – the flotsam
and jetsam, it seems, of violent processes, often dictated by economic
upheavals. New York appears as a repository of uneasy memories that
spatialize the remembrance of a series of forceful dislocations – what
the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen (2014) has called, in her most recent
book, a logic of expulsions, and one of the most urgent global phenomena
currently taking place.

Most of Open City is set in New York, and imbued with a keen
understanding of how the urban layers are suffused with ethnic and
racial trauma. Halfway through the novel the scene switches to Brussels,
where Julius spends a few weeks on holiday. In reviews, interviews, and
scholarly research (Breger 2015; Genç 2014; PBS 2011), the scenes set
in Brussels have been considered as particularly relevant for the way
in which they could offer insights into the experience of dislocation,
migration, identity and cosmopolitanism against the backdrop of recent
ideologically and religiously inspired global violence. Contemporary
commentators have pointed to the link between the radicalizing of
the characters Farouq and Khalil in the novel, and the attackers of the
November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 attacks in Brussels
(see Pitts 2015; Kleinpaste 2015). Teju Cole himself engaged in the debate
about the ideological roots of the Paris and Brussels attacks in media
interviews and social media posts, publicly reacting for example, in a
widely reported Facebook post responding to a Charlie Hebdo editorial,
and effectively accusing Charlie Hebdo, one of the victims of the Paris
attacks, of gross bigotry (Facebook 2015a; see also Huckmagazine 2016).
In a number of recent instances, the novel, its literary setting and its
characters, then, have become enmeshed in the interpretation of real-life
events, in ways that were in part stimulated by the author. Exemplary is
a discussion on Teju Cole’s Facebook profile in answer to the Paris 2015
attacks, a discussion which drew explicit links between the conditions of
some of the disenfranchised and radicalizing youths encountered in the
novel and the events in Paris. The discussion starts when Cole links to a
blog post by art historian Terry Pitts, who states that “in the wake of the
Paris terrorist attacks […] I couldn’t help but recall a long and prescient
section in Teju Cole’s novel Open City” (Pitts 2015). One commenter
to the post, Claudine, immediately disallows this referential relation:
“the concerns of the characters he talked to had nothing to do with
those of the terrorists in Paris. ‘Pas d’amalgame’! [‘don’t mix things’].”
Pitts and Cole, in their reactions, agree with Pauline, leaving open,
however, the possibility that the novel may present insights into realworld
complexities. As Pitts puts it: “The fifty-page section on Brussels
in ‘Open City’ does provide a window into communities like Molenbeek
that astute observers like Teju can share with all of us” (Facebook 2015b).
The lines between literary fiction and the author’s personal opinion
concerning the actual events are further blurred when considering an
article by Cole in The New Inquiry, which presents an argument about
Belgium’s (or Flanders’) historical cosmopolitanism in the context of the
current political climate. Referring to Jan van Eyck’s fifteenth-century
self-portrait with turban, Cole argues that the turban symbolizes a nowlost
cosmopolitanism; the very same thought also appears in the mind
of the narrator of Open City when encountering the radicalizing men in
Brussels (Cole 2012; Cole 2011, 106).

The idea of the novel as a “window” into some of the political and
societal questions of the early twenty-first century is shared by several
recent literary scholars and publicists: Karolina Golimowska (2016,
30), for example, in The Post-9/11 City in Novels, argues that Open City
tries “to explain and imagine how radical Islamic movements come to
existence in the context of a Western metropolis”, while Adam Kirsch,
in a 2016 article for Foreign Policy, singles out Teju Cole (on the basis of
Open City) as one of the novelists who “have provided crucial insights
into the political temper of the moment.”

In the way it addresses urban and global traumatic memories, as
well as the possibility of cosmopolitanism in the face of the challenges
of the twenty-first century, Open City has “managed to hit a nerve in
contemporary literary culture” (Vermeulen 2013, 40). But to what
extent can we draw on the novel to shed light on current, real-world
ideological conflicts? Or, to put it in more provocative terms, is it
possible for Khalil, the young Moroccan whom Julius meets in the
Brussels municipality Etterbeek, in Open City, to speak for the motives
of Khalid – one of the actual Brussels bombers, also of Moroccan
descent, and staying for a short period in the actual Etterbeek? I am
aware, of course, that such questions are essentially provocative (or, from
another perspective, perhaps bordering on the naïve). No current literary
studies paradigm allows for Khalil to speak for Khalid – and in terms
of referential relationship, Etterbeek, Belgium, and Etterbeek in Open
City are located in effect in different countries (cf. Pike 1981; Westphal
2011). “Pas d’amalgame”: let’s not mix worlds with different ontological
status. And yet the brief reference to how Open City has been read in
the wake of the Brussels and Paris attacks, as well as the fact that it
has widely been read as a 9/11 novel, illustrates the readiness of (some)
literary authors to have a say in current social and political affairs, and
the keenness of (some) readers and critics to draw on literature to give
meaning to real-world events.

This article presents one attempt to come to grips with the complex
frames of reference in Open City that would seem to point from the textual
world to the actual world. I will focus on how experiences of dislocation
are framed in the novel as part of its broader narrative strategies. I will
first look at how descriptions of dislocation, and people caught up in
dislocating processes, are framed in terms of an epistemological reading
of the narrator, a search for “signs of the times” which eventually leads
back to the narrator himself. I will then move on to consider questions
of literary genre, and the way in which the novel exhibits features of
the novel of ideas, the Young Man from the Province, and the “roots
trip” novel – and what these generic frames may mean for the possibly
moralizing conclusions drawn from the novel. I will finally consider the
dynamics between aestheticism and ethical imperative, which arguably
constitute a dialogic binary in the novel. This binary is retraced in some
of the literature on Open City, which is somewhat divided between a
reading of the novel as an aesthetic journey (in reviews, in particular,
see e.g. von Trotha 2012) or as an intellectual investigation of twentyfirst
century cosmopolitanism (see e.g. Breger 2015; Gerhmann 2016;
Hallemeier 2013) – although there are also readings integrating both
perspectives (see e.g. Haley 2015; Vermeulen 2013).
In this article, these issues are considered also for the way in which
they chime with broader questions within literary urban studies: the
referential relationship between the literary city and its counterpart
in the actual factual world, and the aestheticizing tendencies of many
of Open City’s modernist antecedents in city writing. One of the key
arguments I make is that the ambiguousness of the narration in the novel
makes it unusually problematic to draw moralizing conclusions from the
novel. The confusion and loss of moral bearing brought about by violent
dislocation does not stem only from the cities’ palimpsest memories, but
is arguably also found in the narrator’s exposition of his personal inquiry.
And yet I hope to show that this should not lead to complete referential
aporia. This article shares the concern voiced by Hubert Zapf (2016,
245) when he states that “ethics does seem to necessitate […] a move
beyond the self-referential aporias of language towards an involvement
of texts in questions of ‘life’ – even and especially in the depragmatized
sphere of aesthetics and literary studies” (see also Zapf 2008).”

Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Open City: Reading Signs of Uncertain Times in New York and Brussels.” In Polvinen, Merja; Salenius, Maria & Sklar, Howard (eds.): Mielikuvituksen maailmat / Fantasins världar / Worlds of Imagination. Turku: Eetos, 290-308

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