Source of book: Borrowed from the library.
Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American author with (among his other accomplishments) a reputation for thoughtful social-media commentary. This is his debut book. He wrote a previous book which has recently been published, so I guess you can puzzle out the meaning of “first” in a more existential sense.
It’s hard to describe exactly what this book is. It doesn’t exactly have a narrative arc, although it has a couple of parallel climaxes. It is more or less a stream-of-consciousness narrative, but not in the way that, say, Joyce would write. It has themes, but not a distinct point.
The narrator is Julius, a half-Nigerian, half-German immigrant to the United States. He is finishing up his training as a psychiatrist in New York City. He wanders the streets at night, meeting various people, and thinking. He also takes an extended trip to Brussels, kind of looking for his long lost grandmother - unsuccessfully - and partly trying to make sense of his own past and future.
Julius is a great example of an unreliable narrator. It is often hard to tell how much of the “truth” is really what happened, or just his spin on it. As he himself acknowledges:
[W]hatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic....We have the ability to do both good and evil, and more often than not, we choose the good. When we don’t, neither we nor our imagined audience is troubled, because we are able to articulate ourselves to ourselves, and because we have, through our other decisions, merited their sympathy.
This comes right before one of the climaxes, where another character accuses him of being the villain in an episode involving her own life. The book never clearly resolves if the alleged incident did or did not happen. If anything, the narrator’s statements after this make the implication that it did, but there is also a contrary implication that it did not, so there is just the hanging question. Did he do it, and just intentionally “forget” about it? Or did she invent it in her own head?
This is one theme of the novel, and it is tied in with the way September 11th haunts New York City, and how atrocities of various kinds haunt. New York itself is haunted by the slave trade, and the Native American Genocide. Julius’s heritage is half German, and Germany is haunted by the holocaust. Israel and Palestine are haunted by the deaths and the tension. And so on. Julius is mugged, and his own psyche bears the wounds of the humiliation and loss of control even as his body heals.
Another theme is that of loneliness, alienation, and connection. Julius is an immigrant, and thus somewhat alienated from the mainstream of America. But he is also connected, and strongly identifies as American. Julius is also an introvert, as any fellow introvert can readily see. He is a good listener, and reasonably good at empathy - with ideas particularly. But he also revolts when someone tries to make a claim on him. (Throughout the book, various persons of African heritage try to assert “brotherhood” in a way that makes Julius obligated to them.) As it seems, Julius can make acquaintances, and in some cases friendships. But these come hard to him, and he often finds himself more repulsed by others than attracted.
He makes connections, but these are fleeting. Throughout the book, he loses a number of his connections, and these losses form another theme within the book. An old professor who has remained a friend dies (at an advanced age) of cancer. He reflects on the death of his African father and his estrangement from his German mother. His girlfriend breaks up with him and moves to California, soon becoming engaged to an old family friend. Another friend gets a job and moves away. A childhood friend from Africa comes into the picture, but she is already in a relationship, and it is her accusation against him that paints him in a different light to the reader.
It is natural for me to identify with Julius. He is highly educated, and loves art, history - and especially music. Various names make their way into the book, from Camus to Mahler to Edward Said, and many, many others. On the one hand, we would have lots to talk about. On the other, Julius is rather pretentious...and so am I, to be honest. There are some uncomfortable parallels, to be sure. On another, Julius is really a thinker - like Cole himself - and there are plenty of interesting thoughts in this book.
Julius is nothing, though, if not an observer. Unreliable though he is, he has a keen eye for observation, and the people he meets are recognizable. So too, is the way that people tell their stories. I’ve noted I am an introvert, but I am a reasonably social one. In my professional capacity, I hear a lot of stories; but I also find it fascinating to listen in my personal capacity as well. Most of us have a story to tell, and would love an audience. The art of listening is really not much more than that: to encourage others to tell their stories and listen attentively.
But despite this, Julius struggles to make lasting and deep connections. In some ways, the closest he comes is with Professor Saito (perhaps the best character in the book). Considering the age gap is on the order of six decades, this obviously will not be a long lasting relationship. But it is a good one, and it is tenderly drawn by the author.
There are so many places it would be fun to quote, but these will suffice.
Julius observes an art exhibit on John Brewster Jr., a deaf painter from the early 1800s. He notes that blindness has carried with it the assumption of a compensatory ability to perceive on a different level. (He notes Milton and Homer, among others.)
Frances O. Watts with Bird
One of the paintings mentioned in the book.
In contrast, deaf persons are more often considered stupid as well as hearing-impaired. In this, Julius is spot-on.
Another observation was interesting. Julius is in Brussels, and has made a connection with Farouq, a young Moroccan student who runs an internet cafe. Farouq notes a truth (in connection with a long conversation on the Middle East which I will not recount) about how the majority perceives the minority.
[D]ifference is never accepted. You are different, okay, but that difference is never seen as containing its own value. Difference as orientalist entertainment is allowed, but difference with its own intrinsic value, no.
I think this goes for many forms of difference - although racial/cultural differences are certainly one. One might also note departures from gender roles, political orthodoxy, and many others.
The final one that has really stuck with me is this. It becomes apparent to all that Professor Saito is near death. He is in pain, and wishes it were over. As Saito puts it, he would love to wander off into the forest and be eaten by a lion. (This is in reference to Julius’ African heritage. Whether it is racist or not is debatable - and it is indeed debated in this book - but Saito’s pain is palpable.) Julius mentions to a friend that he had wished that there had been somehow a stronger, more graceful exit for his friend. Julius’ unnamed friend (who never does get a name) makes an interesting observation.
I wonder why so many people view sickness as a moral test. It has nothing to do with morals or grace. It’s a physical test, and usually we lose...My man, suffering is suffering. You’ve seen what it does, you see it every day.
This brought back to me one of the things that I hate, hate, hated about my fundamentalist past, and what I passionately loathe now about the way so many Christians talk about illness and death. (I blogged about it a few years ago.) We can be so appallingly judgmental about how others deal with extreme pain and death itself, particularly if we haven’t actually faced it ourselves. Just another case where I think we would be well advised to just STFU about things we really have never had to experience ourselves.
I’ll close with this. Mahler appears at the beginning, and at the end. In the first instance, Julius hears a recording of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a work that marries the symphony with the song cycle. It is based on a translation of Chinese poetry. The final movement, Der Abschied (The Farewell) could stand in for the farewell that Julius pays to his past and to Professor Saito.
The book closes with a performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony conducted by Simon Rattle. I have a bit of a personally connection as I have seen Rattle conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic twice. The first was as a child. (I remember my violin teacher and I went to see Anne-Sophie Mutter play Mozart’s 3rd Violin Concerto. I remember Tchaikovsky (Francesca da Rimini?) and a Haydn symphony were also on the program, along with Lutoslawski’s Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra (which I was far too young to appreciate - the piece was only a few years old when I heard it). The second was as a teen when I heard Beethoven’s Eroica live for the first time. It was a life-changing experience.
Anyway, the epiphany of Mahler conducted by Rattle is something I can readily understand, and I felt a thrill as this episode was recounted.
This book was a worthy read, and did not disappoint. It was, perhaps, a bit hyped, but don’t confuse the hype and the reaction with the book itself. Cole’s novel is delightful and thoughtful, much like Cole himself.
Ah yes, we must have music.
Das Lied von der Erde is an amazing piece, and the conclusion is filled with the sort of pathos, ecstasy, and sorrow that life itself is made of. Here is the text (in translation) and the music itself. I have used the same version that Cole mentions, Otto Klemperer and Chista Ludwig.
The sun departs behind the mountains.
In all the valleys the evening descends
with its shadow, full cooling.
O look! Like a silver boat sails
the moon in the watery blue heaven.
I sense the fine breeze stirring
behind the dark pines.
The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep.
All longing now becomes a dream.
Weary men traipse homeward
to sleep; forgotten happiness
and youth to rediscover.
The birds roost silent in their branches.
The world falls asleep.
It blows coolly in the shadows of my pines.
I stand here and wait for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side
to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I walk up and down with my lute
on paths swelling with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal loving-and-life-bedrunken world!
He dismounted and handed him the drink
of Farewells. He asked him where
he would go and why must it be.
He spoke, his voice was quiet. Ah my friend,
Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where do I go? I go, I wander in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander homeward, to my abode!
I’ll never wander far.
Still is my heart, awaiting its hour.
The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green
anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
Forever ... Forever ...
And the last: If you have a solid hour, the 9th Symphony is worth a listen. (Although, given the choice, I like Symphonies 4 and 5 the best. But really, Mahler is amazing.) I’ll just post a link to the 3rd movement, which is an example of how Mahler can write the grotesque so very, very well.
As a footnote, just a great line from Cole’s bit on Charlie Hebdo’s terrible recent editorial:
“This is precisely the logic also of the masses who praise Trump for his "honesty"—as though only ugliness could be honest, as though moral incontinence were any more noble than physical incontinence. But when someone shits their pants in a public gathering, we do not immediately congratulate them on their freedom, on their honesty.”